Competition in the fighter jet market is heating up as development of new aircraft such as the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter advance. But the intense focus on manned fighters as a measure of national military prowess ignores the proliferation of offensive and defensive missile systems and the emergence of unmanned and space-based platforms. Like battleships in 1922, manned fighters are nearing obsolescence.
The Russian Aerospace Agency recently proposed partnering with China and India to produce a next-generation fighter capable of competing in the market and the sky with the latest U.S. and European aircraft.
Called the PAK FA, for Future Air Complex for Tactical Air Forces, the proposed fighter would cost about the same as the $30 million Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and would enter the market around 2010, about the same time as the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. Competition in the fighter jet market is taking flight. The F-22, PAK FA, Su-34 and Eurofighter Typhoon, along with the JSF, are all due to enter service in the next decade. Existing models, such as the F-16 and MiG-29, are already saturating the lower end of the market. But the attention given the development of complex fighter aircraft ignores the proliferation of offensive and defensive missile systems and the emergence of unmanned and space-based weapons platforms. Like battleships in 1922, manned combat aircraft, despite the billions now being spent on their development, are on the cusp of obsolescence. As countries devote resources to acquiring aircraft, some already struggling to survive over the modern battlefield, they risk defeat by foes who are embracing and innovating the next generation of weapons systems. Today's fighter aircraft — with the primary mission of destroying other fighters — are parasitic weapons systems, and most now incorporate bombing capabilities to boost cost-effectiveness. Still, until air defense improved beyond anti-aircraft artillery for destroying bombers and reconnaissance aircraft — or until the bombers and reconnaissance aircraft were replaced — the fighter remained necessary. Both events have transpired.
New systems rival the manned aircraft in bombing and reconnaissance roles. Meanwhile, advances in surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems have forced the development of costly and complex countermeasures and have pushed aircraft maneuverability beyond the physical capacity of pilots. Cruise missiles and theater ballistic missiles proliferate widely and already challenge the aircraft's bombardment role. When the United States launched a punitive attack on Libya in 1986, it used F-111 bombers. When Washington launched retaliatory strikes against Baghdad in 1996 and against alleged assets and allies of Osama bin Laden in 1998, it used cruise missiles. Similarly, the United States used ship- and submarine-launched BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles and air-launched AGM-86C cruise missiles against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and against Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force, particularly for targets deemed too well-defended to risk manned aircraft. The United States is not alone in developing and deploying cruise missiles, though it is the only country since Germany and its V-1 to use them extensively in battle. Current models are expensive and relatively simple, though work is under way to improve effectiveness and reduce cost. One example is LOCAAS, the low-cost autonomous attack system under development in the United States. This system is designed to identify and prioritize a variety of targets and to configure its warhead for maximum effectiveness against the chosen target — all for less than $100,000, compared to the $600,000 to $800,000 Tomahawk. Also, some 16 countries deploy theater ballistic missiles such as the Scud and its variants. At about $350,000 to $500,000 per missile, these are cheap alternatives to strike aircraft, especially against well-defended targets. Like cruise missiles, ballistic missiles are still rather simple, and their effectiveness is likely to increase as they are modified to defeat countermeasures. But these are just the systems currently deployed. Space-based weapons platforms, hypersonic intercontinental weapons systems and unmanned combat vehicles are all on the drawing boards or exist as developmental prototypes. In the reconnaissance role, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) augment already well-established satellites. Still in their infancy, UAVs were used extensively for tactical reconnaissance over Kosovo during Operation Allied Force. Man-portable UAVs are under development, promising even small units their own dedicated airborne reconnaissance capability. Although cruise missiles and UAVs do not necessarily sound the death knell for manned combat aircraft, SAMs do. SAM systems have already succeeded in dramatically reducing the cost-effectiveness of manned aircraft operations. As long ago as 1972, North Vietnamese air defenses forced the United States to send 42 support aircraft for every package of 16 strike aircraft. Of these, 22 were necessary just to counter the crude SAMs of 30 years ago. These additional aircraft included chaff dispensers and electronic jammers to confuse SAM radars, their escorts and "Wild Weasels," which seek out and destroy the radars of SAM systems. During Desert Storm, Allied commanders banned all but F-117 stealth aircraft and cruise missiles from going over downtown Baghdad due to the intensity of air-defense coverage. Improvements in Iraqi air defenses have recently led to a reduction in patrols of the no-fly zones, since the risk they pose exceeds the political value of the mission. Evolution of SAM systems has driven the evolution of countermeasures. Modern combat aircraft carry chaff and jamming pods to confuse radar and flares to confuse infrared seekers. Dedicated air-defense suppression aircraft, the Wild Weasels, also support them. The newest combat aircraft have turned to stealth technology in hopes of eluding SAMs. To date, these measures have worked, though largely due to stagnation in SAM tactics. Iraqi air defenses in 1991 were so centralized that the destruction of a few key nodes substantially reduced their effectiveness. Yugoslav air defenses survived in 1999 by operating only sporadically. With few radar emissions, there was little for the Wild Weasels to target. Although this did not drive NATO from the skies, the mere survival of the Yugoslav air-defense system forced NATO aircraft to fly at high altitudes, reducing the effectiveness of their attacks and leading to politically unfortunate accidents. Moreover, the Yugoslav forces employed an innovation that heralds trouble for the Wild Weasels. They reportedly deployed microwave ovens as decoys, drawing suppressive fire from NATO aircraft. Used in conjunction with real SAM systems and passive sensors, a subsequent deployment of decoys could seriously threaten attacking aircraft. But the final, insurmountable weakness in manned combat aircraft is the pilot's own physiology. Maneuverability is the last line of defense for combat aircraft, and even a 30-year-old design like the F-16 is capable of sustaining nine g's, or nine times the force of gravity. Beyond this level, pilots black out. But given that the Russian-built SA-10 is capable of traveling at six times the speed of sound and maneuvering at 100 g's, neither plane nor pilot can long stave off its threat. SAMs are nearly ubiquitous. At least 120 countries possess SAM systems, ranging from the simple and outdated Russian SA-7 shoulder-fired missile to the advanced SA-10, also known as the S-300, which has attracted Western buyers. At least 25 countries build SAM systems or components, and others are developing their own systems. Iran, for example, tested an indigenously developed SAM in April 1999. Simple and cheap, SAM systems are evolving faster than fighters can cope. Systems are already available that cut through the veil of "stealth" on current aircraft. The Czech-built Tamara anti-stealth radar may have seen action in Yugoslavia, and Iraq reportedly sought to acquire the system. Russia claims to have developed its own anti-stealth radar. And the range of acoustic, thermal, ultraviolet and electro-optical systems still in development do not bode well for aircraft. Manned combat aircraft are currently the measure of national power at a tactical level. They are tools of force projection, and when able to seize air superiority, aircraft can sway the battle on the ground. But they stand today at the brink of obsolescence: Missiles already vie for the bombardment role, and satellites and UAVs perform reconnaissance duties. Only transport aircraft lack a ready substitute. Finally, the tactics and technology of SAMs are on the verge of overcoming aircraft defensive countermeasures. There will certainly be a role in the future for manned combat aircraft. Not everyone can afford a satellite, and cruise missiles are not effective in a gunboat diplomacy role. Troop transports still need escorts, and there may be missions too politically sensitive for unmanned weapons. But the manned combat aircraft's role as the cornerstone of modern military strategy is ending. In 1922, the great powers focused on battleships as the measure of national power, even as the precursor of the battleships' doom, the aircraft carrier USS Langley, was christened. Though Billy Mitchell's warning that battleships were vulnerable to aerial attack was ignored, the bombing of Pearl Harbor ultimately demonstrated the ascendance of the aircraft carrier and launched a revolution in naval strategy. As countries continue to pour resources into manned combat aircraft, they risk a similar rude awakening.