Tuesday, May 19, 2015

CONOPS - Or Lack Thereof

ComNavOps is disgusted and repulsed by unsubstantiated statements that are presented as blanket truisms, especially when spouted by uniformed military professionals.  The common and most disturbing one, currently, is that the future of warfare is unmanned.  I just read yet another article that laid out that suspect premise with absolutely no logical or factual support and then leapfrogged into the author’s pet idea of transforming the entire fleet into a giant UxV operation with no further thought.

Are UxV’s really the future of warfare?  Everyone seems to think so but there is no evidence to support that view.  Indeed, the new offset strategy being promoted by Mr. Work is heavily based on UxVs.  Now, admittedly, anytime a new idea presents itself, there is a dearth of evidence to support the new concept - understandable, since the concept hasn’t yet been implemented.  However, the concept can be logically evaluated through wargames, scale models, small scale trials, and simulated performance by surrogates.  If the experiments and tests warrant, the new idea can then be implemented in a carefully managed, phased approach so that we don’t forfeit our current capabilities on a shiny new toy that may not pan out in the real world. 

What we can’t do is instantly and totally commit to a new idea that is unproven or, worse, may demonstrate weaknesses that are glossed over because they don’t support the new idea.  Witness the LCS fiasco – a complete and total leap into a brand new concept with absolutely no evidence that it would work – and it didn’t.

All right, let’s look at UxVs.

To refresh, on the plus side,

  • Reduced risk for the operator.
  • Endurance – UxVs are not limited by human endurance and have already proven well suited to long endurance surveillance missions with the caveat of mean time between failures which currently is typically a matter of hours, not days.

On the minus side,

  • Communications, both control and data, are a major weak link.  Many UAVs have been lost to failed comms both as a result of deliberate enemy action and simple technology failure.  UUVs are notorious for wandering off during exercises, never to be seen again.
  • Situational awareness – Anyone who has flown real aircraft and simulators will attest to the fact that situational awareness is greatly reduced in a simulator/controller.  While this may not be critical for simple surveillance missions it will be for unmanned combat.  The air-to-air (or sea-to-sea) combat advantage currently lies overwhelmingly with manned platforms.

Neutral factors include,

  • Cost – while many suggest that UxV production costs should be less, the reality is that UxV costs are the same as the corresponding manned versions and, often, greater.  Logically, the costs should be about the same for the same capability.  The incremental cost of manning is relatively small and generally offset by the increased costs of communications and automation.  At the moment, there is no evidence or logic to support claims of cost savings.

That’s a cursory look at some individual factors that go into the evaluation of UxV applications.  Now, let’s try a little logical thought exercise on a more holistic basis.  Let’s look at a “typical” UAV mission as envisioned by proponents.

Specifically, let’s consider a deep penetration UAV strike into a heavily defended area against a peer enemy.  We’d have, perhaps, two dozen aircraft attacking a target, say, 300 nm overland and launched from a carrier 1000 nm away.  Each UAV would carry two guided bombs or moderately short range missiles of some sort.  There would be no electronic warfare (EW) support although we could theorize such but an EW UAV would broadcast its location and would be a magnet for enemy attack and would not last long.  The UAVs would be mid subsonic, at best.

How would such a strike fare?

The aircraft would be slow, only moderately stealthy, with poor situational awareness and probable communication/control lags (remember, in combat a lag of just a second is likely fatal).  They would have to penetrate several hundred miles of enemy aircraft, sensors, and SAMs with no EW assistance.  How many are going to make it to the target?  Not many.  How many are going to successfully strike and survive the return flight to be available for the next mission?  Even fewer.

Is that the kind of result that justifies a total conversion of the fleet to unmanned platforms as the CSBA offset strategy advocates?  I’m not seeing it.

UxVs have a niche role to play, for sure, but not a dominant one.  They simply don’t have the capability to be successful, at least not at the cost point we seem to be facing.  Now, if we could build a long range, penetrating UAV for $1M each instead of $190M each, we might be able to change tactics and conduct strikes with massive numbers so that some aircraft are assured of getting through.

The UUV situation is even more unproven with nothing but vague ideas being substituted for rigorous engineering and tactical evaluations.  Again, hardly the basis for an immediate remake of the fleet.

Unmanned supporters will likely grudgingly acknowledge that we don’t have the full technology yet but someday we will and therefore we need to begin the fleet’s transformation now.  Well, fine, then someday when the technology proves itself we can re-evaluate and, if warranted, modify the fleet.  In the meantime, converting the fleet structure to feature UxVs is akin to having removed all the masts from all the ships in the sailing navy because someone thought steam engines would someday be superior.  In the meantime, though, the hulls would float uselessly, unable to move, while hoping that someday an engine would come along that would allow them to move.

Simple thought exercises show that UxVs not only do not have any magic properties but that they have some significant weaknesses as combat platforms.  So, let’s continue to develop UxVs but let’s not bet the fleet on an unproven theory that has thus far demonstrated severe limitations.  The CSBA offset strategy needs to be halted in its tracks until we have enough operational experience to be able to pass a reasoned judgment.  Until then, it’s folly.


  1. CNO wrote, ",Is that the kind of result that justifies a total conversion of the fleet to unmanned platforms as the CSBA offset strategy advocates?"

    Does the Third Offset Strategy advocate a total conversion to UxVs? I didn't think so.

    It certainly emphasizes them more than our current approach.

    1. The thought process behind the Third Offset Strategy makes a lot of sense to me. The CSBA paper acknowledges many concerns raised here,

      "Based on current trends, future power projection operational concepts should assume that:

      - GPS-precision navigation and timing signals will be frequently degraded, disrupted or unavailable, especially around high-value installations;
      - Unprotected commercial and military SATCOM will be severely degraded, and jam-resistant "protected" SATCOM (i.e. Advanced Extremely High Frequency sattelites) capacity will be over-subscribed;
      - Aversaries will know when EO/IR satellites are passing overhead and may engage them with low- to high-power lasers; and
      - SAR and ELINT satellites will be subject to terrestrial and on-orbit jamming.

      What I don't like is some of the specific recommendations.

      1. I'm not high on DEWs or rail guns for ASBM/AShM work. Certainly continue development, but they both seem like technologies that will always be "just 5-10 years away". Rail guns, especially, feel over-hyped. Sure, you can accelerate a small slug to high velocity, but how well will a guided round handle the acceleration and EM environment?

      I'd rather focus on not giving the enemy an big, easy target.

      2. I'm also not high on the idea of hunting for mobile launchers in enemy territory. Developing technologies to do this may force the enemy to invest in "going to ground", but history has shown finding well-hidden, mobile launchers is very difficult. Instead, we should focus on hitting more traditional enemy "centers of gravity".

      3. UUVs face far more difficult communications challenges than other UxVs. Certainly continue development and deployment for some purposes (e.g. MIW) but don't bet the farm on them. I'd rather focus on less expensive, manned submarines (SSK or smaller, cheaper SSN).

      4. I'm a fan of LRS-B, however I believe we still need a long-ranged FB-111-class (1200-1500nm combat radius), manned, VLO fighter-bomber. We will never buy LRS-B in large numbers, and long-ranged UCAVs will need a manned forward controller and we will need a long-ranged A2A, A2G aircraft.

      5. Divesting/Sunsetting heavy forces is a bad idea. They certainly are harder to move and may be difficult to insert in the enemy's A2/AD network, but they are the only high-intensity, high-threat land combat power we have. There will always be times when we have to bully our way to an objective on the ground. Light, distributed ops land forces can't do that. Instead, I think we need to refocus on modernizing heavy forces.

    2. Smitty, I believe ample evidence exists that our current leadership and their Offset Strategy does, indeed, presage a wholesale conversion to unmanned operations. Statements like the F-35 being the last manned aircraft the military will acquire certainly suggest the path our leadership seems to be embarked on.

      The fascination/obsession with UAVs and the clear desire to replace carrier air wings with all-UAV wings is further evidence.

      The Marine and Army movement away from actual, heavy combat capabilities towards light, mobile, networked, information based "combat" suggests a movement towards "less manned" ground combat units under the dubious theory that a single soldier with the right network of data can equal or exceed the capability of an artillery battalion or armored brigade again suggests a push towards a wholesale conversion of the military from heavy combat to "clean", precision, lightweight crisis response forces.

    3. "Divesting/Sunsetting heavy forces is a bad idea. They certainly are harder to move and may be difficult to insert in the enemy's A2/AD network, but they are the only high-intensity, high-threat land combat power we have. There will always be times when we have to bully our way to an objective on the ground. Light, distributed ops land forces can't do that. Instead, I think we need to refocus on modernizing heavy forces."

      You gain immediate entrance into the ComNavOps Hall of Fame with that one. Well said!

    4. " ... dubious theory that a single soldier with the right network of data can equal or exceed the capability of an artillery battalion or armored brigade ..."

      Which suggests that decision-makers with limited insight into the technology may be assuming that if a data network is as expensive as an artillery battalion, it must be equally effective in some way.

    5. CNO,

      If it's built in anywhere close to the numbers projected, the F-35 will be with us for decades. So yes, maybe 40 years down the road, UCAVs will take over completely. But it's hard to predict that far in advance.

      The Offset Strategy papers I've read call for a mix of manned and unmanned platforms. Currently, carrier-based Navy air is 100% manned. UCLASS is still just an R&D program. Even if productionalized, the Navy only wants a handful of UCLASS per CAW. I think this is too low. I'd rather see closer to a 50-50 split by spot factor. This means 3 "A-47s" for every 2 manned fighters, given the smaller spot factor of a folded A-47.

      So instead of 44-ish fighters, a CAW might have 24 fighters and 30 UCLASS in the same deck area.

    6. "The Offset Strategy papers I've read call for a mix of manned and unmanned platforms."

      What I see when I read is that the call is for nothing but unmanned. That call is tempered by the realization that legacy assets will be with us for many years to come, as you point out.

      Similarly, the previous offset, that of stealth, gave us the F-117 and so forth even while the majority of assets remained non-stealth such as F-16s. Likewise, current leadership seems to want to push as hard as possible towards unmanned while grudgingly acknowledging the reality of legacy assets.

      The wholesale conversion is the fact that all new acquisitions will be unmanned, networked assets. The fact that these will become our frontline assets is what worries me given that we haven't tested the concepts and what little testing we've done suggests that they will not perform as hoped.

    7. The current leadership is pushing hard to complete the F-35 program, the most expensive manned fighter program in history. The USAF leadership is pushing hard for the next-gen, manned bomber.

      So while they say unmanned is coming, complete conversion is decades off, if ever.

      The CSBA paper (pg 68) calls for 5-10 squadrons of N-UCASS, or 2-300 aircraft.

      Hardly a total conversion.

    8. Current leadership has made it clear that it WANTS an all unmanned force. The reality of force numbers, legacy assets, and replacement costs won't allow that. Nonetheless, leadership WANTS that and, while grudgingly acknowledging legacy assets, will do everything possible to ensure that all future acquisitions are unmanned.

      The F-35 has been described by leadership as the last manned aircraft. The AF's new bomber has been consistently described as "optionally manned" which is a euphemism for unmanned. And so on. That is clearly an attempt at total conversion of the force to unmanned or, expanding the discussion to ships and ground forces, minimally manned.

    9. All future acquisitions starting when? 2038, after all F-35s are delivered? After all 1,700 F-35s retire in another 30 years (2068)?

      How many of those in leadership will still be in service by then?

      No matter what a few say they want, we will have a primarily manned force for a LONG time, unless they severely truncate the F-35 program.

    10. All future acquisitions starting now. Just as with the previous offset, stealth, we started with just the F-117 but over the next few decades we tried to build stealth into everything we acquired that would see active combat. By the end of that offset period (30+ years) we had stealth as a part of most of our new frontline ships and aircraft.

      Similarly, from this day as a starting point, our current leadership will attempt to build "unmanned" and "networked" into every new acquisition.

      Of course we will have a largely manned force for some time to come just as we had a largely non-stealthy force for some time after the last offset. However, by the end of the period we had worked stealth into almost every design. So, too, will we work "unmanned" into every new design over the next few decades.

  2. It's very hard to fathom Sec Mabus's assertion that the F35 will be the last manned strike fighter.

  3. So... I have a dumb question...

    At what point does the distinction between a UAV and a Cruise Missile start to blur?

    The X-47B can do alot... but it almost seems like in some ways LRASM is smarter and more autonomous in order to deal with a high threat environment.

    I guess I'm wondering how hard it would be to have missiles like LRASM instead of a UAV trying to penetrate enemy air defense systems. Some of the missiles could be missiles. Others with a different payload could act as recon and either penetrate, upload information to satellites, or whatever and leave; or blow up when they run out of fuel.

    Maybe it wouldn't be as versital as a UAV, but it might give 80% of the functionality for 50% of the price.

    I'm sure there's something really big I'm not seeing, just curious what you all thought.

    1. Missiles are expended when they are used. UxVs offer the hope - but only hope, really - that you can get them back and use them again, making operations with them cheaper.

      At present, UxVs are fashionable. Fashions aren't entirely rational, but there are frequently comprehensible reasons for them. As far as I can tell, these are some of the reasons for the current fashion:

      The USA is actively engaged with enemies, at the level of dropping bombs every week, but short of full-scale war, and this engagement seems likely to continue for a long time. It thus seems worth optimising forces for this kind of conflict. That's a longwinded way of saying that "peer opponents aren't significant any more", which plays into the desire of patriotic Americans to believe that the US has no peers.

      The current enemies are particularly savage and alien, so it's particularly important to keen them from capturing pilots. The USSR did not, after all, circulate videos of prisoners' heads being sawn off.

      iPhones and similar gadgets are making people really used to the idea that digital communications work everywhere, all the time, and are thoroughly reliable. This idea is false, and knowledgeable people know that, but the less knowledgeable see lots of "evidence" for it being right every day.

    2. I think that is where the benefits of UAV's can realized. We have been having autonomous vehicles fly into contested airspace for decades. The only deference is that these ones will try to come back rather than crashing into the target like cruise missiles.

      The other benefit I could see is them acting as a 'arsenal' for manned fighters, have them fly in the general vicinity or a little bit forward of the manned fighters and have them increase the f-35's missile load, the Human pilot does all the work and the missiles just launch from the UAV, although cost may become an issue with this depending on the attrition rate of these arsenals.

    3. I can see your point, though I think that we have to be very careful with taking a 1/2 trillion dollar/year defense budget and gearing it towards non peer adversaries.

      For those non peers, things like Predator and follow on evolutions of Predator seem to work just fine. They exist, and the technology is paid for, and they save pilots. I'm not saying we get rid of those. But I think those conflicts are overkill for something like the UCLASS type of aircraft, IMHO.

      For a peer adversary.... I get the idea... but the only big advantage I can see to a UAV on the level of an UCLASS is that it can have better range. Other than that... instead of taking the price of X platform that's already relatively cheap (SuperHornet) or horrifically expensive but likely only available in limited numbers (F-35C) and firing off the expensive missiles, we are adding the cost of developing a new UAV that is (maybe) capable of penetrating A2/AD more effectively and firing off those missiles while allowing the CVN to be farther off shore.

      It just seems like a huge risk in added cost and research to fire the same missiles we would before. I'm just wondering if it might be easier to make longer ranged missiles like LRASM (LRASM-ER) They're already stealth.

      That way you have whatever added cost it evolve LRASM or Tomahawk or whatever a bit, don't add much cost to the F-18 or F-35 to shoot it, and get roughly the same result.

      And if you can make a LRASM sub launched you possibly get a chance to get well within the A2/AD environment to launch more deeply into contested territory.

      I get the idea that 'non peers are our business now'. I just don't agree with it. First because the peer nations are increasingly aggressive in their weapons design, and second because many of those weapons may filter down to our current non peers.

    4. I'm definitely not advocating that the US forces should concentrate on non-peer opponents.

      I'm saying that in a system where money follows ideas that are claimed to be innovative, and all the current active operations are against non-peers, it's very easy to end up concentrating procurement on weapons that aren't effective against peers.

    5. Jim, there are many more advantages to a UCLASS than just range.

      1. At-sea munition flexibility. A cruise missile is shipped with the only warhead it can have. Changing it requires a trip back to the manufacturer. That warhead is limited to a handful of types that is appropriate for a relatively small subset of targets. A UCLASS can be qualified to carry any munitions that fit in the bay or on hardpoints. An A-47 could carry 2000lb penetrators one sortie, AMRAAMs the next, SDB/SDBIIs the sortie after that, or anything else in our standard suite of manned aircraft munitions.

      2. Better sensors and comms. By design, cruise missiles carry just enough sensor and comm capability to find a pre-planned target. Anything more would drive up the price. Because UCAVs don't destroy themselves on each sortie, they can afford to carry more expensive, more varied and more capable sensors. They can contribute to the overall ISR picture. They can help look for targets, not just attack ones someone else found. They could also swap out bombs for additional recc packages.

      3. Mission flexibility. UCAVs can attack time-sensitive targets by positioning themselves nearby areas of interest. If no targets present themselves, the UCAV can return to base with ordinance intact. Hypersonic missiles could also attack time-sensitive targets, but they are going to be much more expensive.

      With proper programming UCAVs can fly CAS, strike, interdiction sorties, (in theory) OCA/DCA, ISR, or SEAD/DEAD sorties. Realistically, cruise missiles can only handle strike with limited ability to hit mobile targets.

      4. AAR. A UCAV can afford to invest in automated AAR capabilities that can greatly extend its range and endurance. A cruise missile ships with their max-range predefined. If your target is out of range, you're out of luck.

      We need both. It's not an either-or situation. We also should invest in hybrid hunting munitions, like the Israeli Harpy, that combine some aspects of missiles and UAVs.

    6. Okay. That makes more sense. And I think that I'm more thinking of SEAD/DEAD missions... if we know (roughly) where emitters/runways/missile sites are we could use something like JASSM-ER or LRASM or whatever to take a big chunk out of an enemy air defense system on the first day; allowing F-35's and SH's to follow on more closely after that work is done. Do we need a UCAV for that? I know that there is a sensor issue... but if LRASM can do what they say it can in terms of autonomous targeting... it seems pretty damned smart all by itself. Maybe some modification of its programming can evolve it a bit. I guess I'm not thinking of a missile that is changeable on site. But one who's been evolved and delivered to the ship. So we have a LRRM (Long Range Recon Missile) based off of LRASM that carries a recon package and uses its stealth and range to find or confirm targets prior to a strike then sends a burst transmission back and blows up. It could be followed by LRASM's once we get some data from it.

      The points you give me for the UCAV seem reasonable. But... from what I've read it seems we're a long way from a UCAV doing something like CAS or acting as a Bolo of the skies.

      Alot of my motivation for this is that I'd really, really, like to avoid a UCAV becoming a budget eating monster. Especially if we have things that can do 80% of the job.

      Again, maybe I'm talking out of my hat here.

    7. John: Sorry, I misunderstood you.

    8. Jim: Don't worry about it. I wasn't terribly clear.

    9. Jim,

      The problem is, you can't just know "roughly" where an emitter or missile system is. You have to know precisely enough to get the missile into its lethal envelope. A UCAV can afford to have an emitter location system onboard to generate precise target coordinates. A cruise missile needs offboard targeting (or another missile).

      So LRASM can't do 80%, repeatedly. More like 10%, once.

    10. Okay. Another glorious idea shot down in flames. ;-)

      I suppose the next question for me is: Is there a way to develop this without breaking the bank (again). I'd like to see UCAV's slowly develop and increase in capability, from being able to go from non contested airspace to increasingly contested airspace, over a period of years as it makes sense.

      I fear the arguments that seem to say 'Lets make UCLASS NOW!!!!! It will fly right into A2/AD and defeat the foe!'

      I don't think its there yet, and trying to get it there in our current budget/acquisition environment will just send us down another massive acquisition cost spiral sinkhole with nothing to show for it for more than a decade; whereas slowly kaisen'ing designs might get us there more slowly, get us more experience with the platforms, and get us something useful in the meantime.


    11. To date, the UCLASS program wasn't supposed to be all that expensive (in relative DoD terms). The last number I saw was $3.7 billion to develop and build up to 24 aircraft.

      The problem with going slow is, as with all military technology, our advantage in unmanned systems is only temporary. If we "go slow" it may evaporate before ever reaching its potential.

      If it were me, I would go at a faster pace than is currently planned, but restrict it to an order of magnitude lower than, say, the F-35 program until it starts to prove itself. Then reevaluate.

      The problem with all new technology is it invariably takes longer to mature than proponents would have you believe. The key is to gain some well-informed vision as to a technology's promise, maintain appropriate programmatic stubbornness, and realize it is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be ups and downs, successes and failures.

    12. "... it's very easy to end up concentrating procurement on weapons that aren't effective against peers."

      John, excellent observation.

    13. Smitty, you list the advantages of a UCLASS and those are valid. In balance and fairness, we need to note the cost differential which is hugely in favor of cruise missiles. At a couple million dollars per missile, we can build and use hundreds for each UCLASS which will probably cost on the order of $150M-$200M each. Of course, you properly note that this is not an either-or discussion. We need both. However, we do need to keep the relative costs firmly in mind as we discuss these things.

    14. Where'd you get the cost estimate for UCLASS? Global Hawks may cost that much, but they have VERY expensive sensor and comms suites.

      If we kept the sensors and comms to Reaper-class, I bet you could could get the unit price of a high-rate A-47 down to half as much as an F-35C, maybe lower.

    15. Only the unrealistically optimistic can look at the UCLASS as envisioned by supporters (a downtown, round the world, deep penetrating, aerial dominant, wonder craft) and believe that it will be less expensive than the F-35. It's supposed to have longer range, larger payload, better sensors, better comms, greater stealth, etc. than the F-35. That makes it much, much more expensive than an F-35.

      To be fair, there are no exact specs, yet, so this is all speculation but a reasonable estimate for the cost will be in the $150-$250M per copy range.

      Of course, if we want to start paring down the capabilities ...

    16. No, the X-47B is NOT supposed to have a larger payload or better sensors.

      X-47B designed to carry 2 x 2000lb class bombs.

      The F-35A can carry 2 x 2000lb bombs, 2 x AMRAAMS and has a 25mm gun. It also has several thousand pounds tied up in the cockpit and associated hardware.

      Plus the F-35 is designed for high-G maneuvering. The UCLASS isn't. That drives up the structural weight.

      X-47B has a sensor suite comparable to Reaper (which cost around $17 million per aircraft, not counting ground station).

      The F-35 has a much more expensive, fighter-class radar (APG-81) and DAIRS/EOTS system.

      Just look at empty weights.

      F-35A: 29,300lbs
      X-47B: 14,000lbs

      Now you can expect some weight growth going from a prototype to production aircraft, perhaps a couple thousand pounds.

      So no, $150-200 million is hardly reasonable for a mature, production X-47. Just judging by empty weights and modest sensor suite, it should be able to hit $50-70 million, IMHO, if bought in numbers. Maybe less.

    17. Smitty, you seem to be focused on a variant of the X-47B that is not representative of what's being asked for. To review...

      There are two factions in the UCLASS "battle". One calls for a simpler surveillance aircraft. That could, potentially, be affordable although history suggests that by the time the military gets done with it, it will be far more expensive than estimated.

      The second, the one we're discussing, is the do-everything, super stealth, deep penetrating, large payload, magic sensor, version championed by Congress and others. While NG has put forth an X-47B contender, your scaled back version is not representative of what this second school wants. This school wants the aircraft to be a very stealthy, deep penetrating, strike aircraft with capability to perform tanking, EW, A2A, and every other mission anyone can think of. Such an aircraft would be hideously expensive, of course.

      Honestly, your version sounds like it encompasses the worst characteristics of both schools.

      Read some of the general writeups about UCLASS and you'll see that your X-47B is not representative of either of the common schools of thought.

    18. Can you point me to the writeups you speak of? I only see general discussions about a low-threat "Naval Reaper" vs a high-threat strike aircraft.

    19. Check out the wiki write up of UCLASS as a starting point and then do a search for any of the congressional views as espoused by many or most of the ranking members. I seem to recall that Def Ind Daily has a pretty good description of the basic schools of thought. I might be remembering that incorrectly. I read far too many things to keep them all straight in my head!

  4. Good points.

    This is even worse if we consider that coastal cities probably are the next common war theater. Populations in megalopolis tend to have a good tech knowledge and could be able to disrupt communications.
    Coastal megalopolis means amphibious operation in a very difficult geography.

    It could be the worse place for unmanned vehicle.

    1. Xavier, populations aren't going to disrupt military communications, enemy military forces are and those capabilities aren't necessarily linked to cities. I may be missing your point.

      Your statement about cities being a bad place for unmanned vehicles is interesting. Care to expand on that?

  5. I think that this UxV thing has been overhyped.

    It's possible that it might someday have the ability to dominate over manned platforms, but as you note, that's a big "might someday".

    Latency is a huge problem with UxVs, and if there is a situation where the vehicle must make rapid evasive maneuvers, the issue of latency, along with disruptions in communications becomes a huge issue.

    This hype seems to be like how everyone once thought that the guided missile would render guns on aircraft obsolete - then reality intrudes.

    1. When was the last A2A gun kill?

    2. When was the last A2A combat missile kill? The question is not literal - I don't care when it was. The point is that there has not been sustained A2A combat in a very long time. Stealth exercises suggest that missiles will be rendered far less effective and that gun dogfights may well result.

      Alt's point, I think, was that unmanned aircraft are entirely unsuited to aerial combat. He's right. The current state of the art control, communications, and situational awareness is far too lacking for an unmanned aircraft to have any chance of success in A2A combat.

    3. BVR missiles may be rendered far less effective. IR WVR missiles are still capable vs stealth designs.

      Saying that all unmanned aircraft are "entirely unsuited" to A2A combat is hard to justify. At best, you can say they haven't been proven.

      UCAVs don't need to have the same degree of situational awareness as manned aircraft to be effective. Instead they can play to their strengths (e.g. potentially lower cost and greater numbers, higher degrees of LO, semi-expendability, potentially higher performance).

      A2A UCAVs, conceptually may be more like a flying SAM site than a Top Gun manned fighter. But SAMs are certainly are still lethal, right?

      UCAVs can be far less expensive than manned aircraft, depending on their requirements. The X-47 is a fairly large UCAV, but it has an empty weight less than half that of an F-35C. Built in bulk, it would be significantly cheaper.

      An A2A UCAV could be even smaller, lighter, and cheaper.

    4. Smitty, again, you're assuming that the cost of these miracle UCAVs will be very low and there is nothing to justify that belief. If you want a UCAV that has the range, speed, stealth, sensors, and payload of an F-35/22, you're going to pay the price of an F-35/22.

      Now, your suggestion of a UCAV as a sort of smarter, more maneuverable SAM is intriguing although the cost would rapidly escalate as the military began to tweak the simple design.

      There is also absolutely no public domain evidence that an unmanned UCAV can be remotely effective in aerial combat against manned aircraft. My limited, personal experience flying aircraft and simulators strongly suggests that there is no comparison in situational awareness and that a UCAV would simple be a target drone. In fairness, my experience is limited and long out of date!

    5. CNO,

      Challenge your assumptions. Be creative.

      Why does an A2A UCAV need to be the same size as an F-35/22?

      Start with the LM CUDA mini-missile concept. Put four in a small airframe with a mini-bizjet engine. Use an IRST as its only sensor.

      It's probably only incrementally larger than a cruise missile.

      Perhaps 4-5000lbs combat weight.

      Sure it won't hit Mach 1, but most A2A engagements recently haven't either. The fighters in these engagements have been subsonic the whole time with little to no high-G maneuvering.

      It can make up for its lack of performance with numbers and reckless semi-expendability.

      The CUDAs can be swapped out for four SDBs for A2G. In low intensity conflicts, additional light ordinance or fuel can be carried externally. Optionally, the internal bays could be a tad longer (2.4m vs 1.8m) and deeper (10-11in vs 7-8in) to carry 500lb JDAMs as well.

    6. Smitty, now that is an outstanding comment with a fascinating premise. The subject is worthy of an entire post. Let me know if you're interested in a guest post.

      What's lacking in your concept is a realistic assessment of combat effectiveness. Can it actually perform effectively in an A2A environment against likely enemy aircraft and in an electronically challenged scenario? I have no idea and I'm sure you don't either. Regardless, it's a fascinating concept that could well prove viable (or not) and is well worth consideration.

      My personal suspicion is that such an aircraft would be hugely ineffective, being susceptible to long range destruction, but that if it could be procured and employed in sufficient numbers (meaning low enough cost to be throwaway) it might prove effective.

      A tip of the hat to you for an outside the box approach to A2A combat! One of the best comments I've seen.

    7. Why would it be subject to long-ranged destruction? It can be significantly more stealthy than a manned aircraft.

      The X-45A is only 3.7 feet tall with a wingspan of 33.8 feet and has all the normal stealth design rules. This aircraft could be even smaller.

      My worry is in using an IRST for mid-to-long-ranged detection. Might work fine in clear weather but what if it has to fight in a storm? It might need a radar backup, which would drive up size and price.

    8. "Why would it be subject to long-ranged destruction?"

      When I say long range, I'm referring to a relative distance. I don't mean a hundred miles. I mean long range as in outside it's own EFFECTIVE weapon range. I'm dubious about the effectiveness of an all/only IRST combat aircraft. Unless we want to adopt a "fire on any tiny blip we see, no questions asked and no ID needed" approach, we'll need to get much closer to obtain positive ID for launch puposes. Of course, this neglects the question about the range of the CUDA missile since none actually exist. I'm assuming that a Sidewinder would be a more realistic weapon - but, hey, it's speculation so there's nothing wrong with postulating a CUDA! So, if we've got a not very good, short range (missile) aircraft going up against conventional manned aircraft able to use radar and missiles, my fear is that the aircraft would be destroyed outside its own engagement range - hence, long range on a relative basis. Sorry for not being clearer.

      IRST is interesting. I've been fascinated by it since the days of the F-14. Can an IRST sensor function effectively as the primary sensor? At what range can a target be sufficiently ID'ed to allow a missile launch? At what range can IRST find and track a modern stealth (including IR signature reduction) aircraft? I'm unaware of any public domain performance data relevant to A2A combat. Do you know of any?

    9. CUDA was offered as BVR-class missile. How it compares to the various AMRAAM models is debatable. ElementsOfPower had a discussion here. Clearly speculative.

      IRST may be an issue, but it could make up for it with numbers. If you could build ten for every one F-35, we could afford to win through sheer attrition.

  6. The idea of robotic combatants and scouts are a wonderful one, but they can only augment, not replace a human mind in the mixture. Without solid situational adapting algorithms, the communication tether will always be a mission stopping liability. If you use some type of microfiber tether to pass instructions you have limitation of range, but if the signal is broadcast(whether by laser, sonic, or RF) it can be intercepted, spooked, or even just jammed out of coherency. No amount of technology or cunning doctrine is going to get around that limitation. The thing has to be able to think enough for itself to adapt, and our hardware is a lot further along than our software capacities in that department.

  7. the unmanned platform will not achieve full potential without the development of an AI pilot capable of handling major tasking (not just autopilot or preprogrammed weapon drop).

    the only way to bypass those jammings that messed an unmanned system is to have a very capable AI pilot on board , an AI that can be created from data gained in simulators for every possible events..

    that way clever enemies (never under estimate your enemies , they are also humans, the most dangerous game as someone said) cant hack your satellite signals and Controls like what the iranian did to RQ170.


    1. "I am grieved to discover that my original Commander's file has not been properly maintained, yet the dearth of information upon her confirms her own belief that Sector HQ had "forgotten where they put me" long before her death. It is not proper for a member of the Dinochrome Brigade to be denied her place in its proud history"

      -- Bolo's of the sky!!! ;-)

    2. buntalanlucu,

      I really don't think we need AI-level computing to make UCAVs valuable and viable in a high-end conflict. Higher order thinking can be offboarded to manned platforms. Jamming is not a cone of silence, especially with aircraft moving at 400+kts. LOS datalinks can be very robust.

      There has been no official statement as to the cause of the downed RQ170. It may just've been a flight anomaly. The Iranians may have had nothing to do with it. Or they may've had a team of L33t Hax0rz. Remember, Iran has a long and colorful history of embellishing the truth.

    3. smitty , the rq170 is the perfect reason why a UNmanned platform need some kind of AI, to determine if it was hacked or spoofed. as comnavops said so many times, one cant depend on having stupid enemy every time one go to war..

      as for the rq170 incident, iranian provided their data regarding the detection of RQ170 in iran airspace, they have planned the capture operation for 2 years , from detection to capture. against such patient and cunning enemy one cant just williy nilly underestimate them...

      remember the NVA's cunning and tactics like shooting down one chopper and waiting patiently to ambush the rescuer and get more chopper down ? thats what happened when one face a thinking and cunning enemy , willing to take horrible losses just to hurt you..

      mark my words , AI will be developed as virtual co-pilot to supplement human controller, in every unmanned systems.. without AI, every unmanned system is just a glorified RC toy


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