War on the Rocks (WOTR) website has a fascinating article on the vulnerability of our aerial tanking capability which inspired this particular post (1). WOTR points out that aerial tanking is a fundamental capability that is crucial to all our combat operations. Further, the availability of tanking is taken for granted. WOTR posits the question, what if our tanking is threatened? The article goes on to describe threats and solutions. It’s a very worthwhile read.
The particular aspect that I’d like to focus on is the potential use of enemy long range, stealthy UAVs as anti-tanker weapons. We don’t hesitate to envision and design all manner of long range, stealthy UAVs that will triumphantly penetrate deep into enemy airspace and carry out devastating attacks with near total impunity. Being slightly more realistic, we don’t hesitate to envision and design long range, stealthy UAVs intended for persistent surveillance deep in enemy airspace, again with assumed impunity.
Well, fair is fair. If we can design such magnificent machines so can the enemy. Let’s face it, on a relative scale, designing and building UAVs is not all that difficult and a bit of cyber spying and hacking would provide any design specs the enemy couldn’t figure out on their own.
Now imagine a long range, stealthy UAV whose design purpose is to be a tanker-killer. It would probably have a degree of autonomy to identify tankers on its own and decide where, when, and how to kill them. The UAV could even be designed as a suicide craft to be expended against the tanker.
Tanker locations, at least generally, can be fairly well predicted. They have to be somewhere along the path to a worthwhile target and placed in the flight paths of the combat aircraft who need the fuel. Knowing where our bases are, where the targets of interest are, and having observed our general flight paths, it wouldn’t take much of a thought exercise to predict tanker locations.
Long endurance, stealthy UAVs can fly to the predicted areas and simply wait while conducting search profiles. A little bit of artificial intelligence software can aid in backtracking observed aircraft flight paths to further refine predicted locations.
For relatively little effort and cost, the enemy could paralyze our air operations by seriously affecting our tanking capability and capacity. I know many of you are having a knee jerk reaction and saying that no enemy UAV can fly thousands of miles into our airspace, undetected, and destroy our tankers. We’d see them and easily shoot them down. To go back to the previous thought, we think our UAVs will penetrate thousands of miles of enemy airspace and carry out all manner of destruction and surveillance, undetected. We can’t have it both ways. If UAVs are that good then they’ll be that good for the enemy, too. If UAVs aren’t that good then you have to ask about the wisdom of our current UAV path.
|Tanker - UAV Target?|
The purpose of this post is to anticipate a possible enemy course of action and, thus, be prepared to counter it. If we believe this is a realistic possibility then we need to be prepared to provide UAV detection around our tankers and provide the means to destroy the UAVs. I don’t know what level of detection capability is needed. Is an F-15’s radar sufficient to detect UAVs for many miles around a tanker or do we need to pair AWACS and tankers? Does a UAV have enough of a radar and IR signature for an AMRAAM or Sidewinder to successfully engage it? Hopefully, the military is looking closely at these kinds of questions.
On a broader scale, hopefully the military is looking at our forces from the enemy’s perspective and trying to anticipate their actions just as we’re doing here. Unfortunately, I see far more emphasis on acquiring things then on developing tactics and conducting realistic wargames against an “enemy force” that is free to engage in any manner they wish.
Anyway, take this as a simple thought exercise in the realm of tactics. The military needs to do a lot more of this.
(1)War on the Rocks, “Short Legs Can’t Win Arms Races: Range Issues And New Threats To Aerial Refueling Put
Strategy At Risk”, Greg Knepper And Peter W. Singer, U.S. May 20, 2015,