Tuesday, November 24, 2015

UAV Tanker Killer

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 U.S. Strategy At Risk”, Greg Knepper And Peter W. Singer, May 20, 2015,


  1. I certainly think it's feasible.

  2. I think many people projecting the future of UAV/UCAV are blindly optimistic , taking the current experience in UAV usage without considering the reality that UAV today are operating without contest. The same hubris / arrogance led to the hack and capture of RQ170 stealth drone by iranian , thr enemy everyone including the MSM potray as the next Evil to be invaded/attacked.

    1. One viewpoint is that the current state of the art of artificial intelligence software and of secure communications technology constrain what can be done with UCAV's inside a high threat battlespace; and further, that decades may pass before the AI-driven technology is reliable enough to allow the use of a UCAV in all the threat environments we would like to be using it in.

      A contrary viewpoint is that we know enough right now in the areas of AI software and secure communications technology to justify building a full-blown multi-role UCLASS unmanned strike fighter for deployment in the mid to late 2020's.

      Who is right; who is wrong?

      A useful approach to answering this question might be to develop unmanned robotic pilot modules for both the F-22 and the F-35 in order to see just how well the AI software and the secure communications technology work aboard aircraft which are otherwise intended to operate inside a high threat A2/AD battlespace.

      The purpose of these robotic pilot research modules is not to replace the F-22 and the F-35 pilots aboard those two aircraft per se, but to see how well the AI software and the secure communications software work aboard an aircraft which is otherwise designed to be capable of fighting and winning inside a future A2/AD combat environment.

      If the AI software and communications technology performs as well as its advocates say that it can, the next step is to build UCAV's which make direct use of that research software. If it were me, I would start first with building smaller UCAV's which prioritize fleet ISR, fleet patrol, and fleet defense functions over offensive power projection strike systems.

    2. I'd be all for the tests you describe. It doesn't even need to be performed on F-22/35s. You're talking about AI and comms. Those can be installed on a Cessna and sent into as severe an electromagnetically challenged environment as we can produce and see how they do. Of course, using F-22/35s would be even more realistic.

      This is a pet peeve of mine. The Navy refused to do exactly this kind of realistic testing and training. Let's put an Aegis cruiser in an electromagnetically challenged environment and then send a wave of missiles at it and see what happens. I'm betting it wouldn't turn out as well as we hope but better to find out now than during combat.

      Good comment.

    3. What kind of AI and what level of comms does this really need?

      It needs to be able to self navigate, but cruise missiles and UAVs have been doing this for a long time.

      It needs to have a relatively low bit rate SACOM and/or long-range LOS datalink to receive target vectors.

      It needs to be able to search a patch of airspace for a relatively large aircraft via IRST or radar.

      Once it finds the aircraft, it can calculate an appropriate intercept, ask for clearance to shoot, and upon receipt, fire its endgame weapon(s).

      Doesn't seem like that much AI or comms to me.

    4. What kind of AI and what level of comms does this [a UCAV] really need?

      The answer to that question depends on how complex the threat environment is for the UCAV at any given point in its mission cycle and on how ambitious its performance objectives are relative to a manned fighter equivalent.

      Is the threat environment of a UCAV operating over blue water in fleet defense mode 1000 miles from the Chinese coast quite a bit less complex than the threat environment of a UCAV which is attempting to penetrate defended airspace over a continental or an island land mass?

      It certainly is less complex for now, but what about two decades from today when it is possible that Chinese combat power in a variety of forms might reach well beyond its current effective range?

      In any case, we should be starting work right now to develop a smaller-than-UCLASS unmanned fleet defense UCAV which combines a useful balance of ISR capabilities, BVR weapons system capabilities, and range/endurance capabilities.

      That system can be a starting point for building a series of ever-more ambitious unmanned UCAV systems which can progress reliably one logical step at a time as more experience is being gained.

    5. Interestingly enough, the DOT&E asked for an unmanned AEGIS in a a realistic test.

      Worth a read:


    6. DOT&E has been pushing for this kind of testing for quite awhile and the Navy has been resisting. Interestingly, the Navy has been trying as hard as they can to early retire the Ticos. Maybe they should dedicate one of those to being a remote control test bed?

    7. One problem for this type of UAV is target identification. How do they tell the tankers apart from commercial jetliners? Almost all current tankers are based on commercial frames, with very little difference even visually at long range.

    8. I don't think our likely enemies would care all that much about target ID, do you?

  3. Someone, I think Alt and Main, made reference to the US aircraft not having large fuel fractions.

    I wonder if that is because we rely on our tanking fleet. If so, I wonder if this is a wise move anymore.

    The Flanker shows that a fighter can have a huge fuel fraction and still have great speed and agility. The cost of tanker gas is ridiculously high. And, of course, there are the inherent vulnerabilities of the tankers themselves in a peer conflict.

    I'm not saying we get rid of tankers, but maybe it would be a good idea to re-think our fuel fraction idea; or at least our efficiency in order to get our ranges up. The combat radius of the F-15 seems pretty competitive, but the F-16/Superhornet both seem more short legged. It might do well to give us alot more tactical flexibility.

    1. What ... You don't think the F-35 is sufficient?

    2. High fuel fractions won't get rid of tankers, but they will potentially reduce dependencies on them.

      The problem is that you are sending something that uses quite a bit of fuel and is vulnerable (hence needs escorts of its own in contested territory) to refuel your aircraft.

      The other thing to remember is that every $$$ you gotta spend on fuel tankers is one less to purchase actual combat aircraft. That and you have to escort your fuel tanker, which costs even more.

      Fuel fraction isn't the only factor of course - the entire Bruguet range equation is what affects how far you can fly:

      Give it a read if you have the time. Fuel fraction makes up the w_initial / w_final.

      The F-35, btw, although it has an acceptable fuel fraction, due to its fat fuselage has a terrible L/D ratio (all variants).

  4. Strictly as a thought exercise, think about the possibility that China might eventually go Full Blue Water (FBW) on us and deploy a fleet of air defense battle cruisers operating in a series of picket lines hither and yon about the Pacific, with one primary mission being the disruption of allied air operations well behind the primary A2/AD battlespace, particularly the air tanker operations.

    1. Interesting. If I understand you correctly, you're suggesting a Tico-ish vessel dedicated to AAW and deployed in sufficient numbers to stand a reasonable chance of survival since they would be deployed at the limit of, or beyond, friendly air support?

      A slight variation of this for US work has been a longtime pet idea of mine. I like it!

    2. CNO, in thinking about using a large surface combatant for prosecuting forward-deployed air defense missions operating in a blue water battlespace far from a continental or island land mass, one has to recognize that such a warship will not survive very long in a Big War Scenario if it doesn't have substantial support from a combination of fixed wing aircraft, rotary wing aircraft, and submarines, all operating at the surface combatant's beck and call.

      OK, where do the airpower resources come from if they aren't being supplied by land-based aircraft?

      The answer here is that either the large surface combatant is large enough to carry some useful measure of airpower by itself -- not a realistic solution if the Big War Scenario really is 'big' -- or else the airpower is supplied by one or more aircraft carriers which are operating in close enough proximity to supply the needed air support.

      What kind of aircraft carrier would be most useful in supporting an independent surface action group composed of several large air defense surface combatants and supporting fleet elements operating under an Air Sea Battle / Distributed Lethality type of CONOPS doctrine?

      I think the answer to that question depends in some large part on where the future technology of unmanned combat fighter aircraft is likely headed, versus what we know can be done using manned combat aircraft.

    3. "... one has to recognize that such a warship will not survive very long in a Big War Scenario if it doesn't have substantial support from a combination of fixed wing aircraft ..."

      And this is where the new artificial island/airbases may come into play in Chinese thinking.

    4. They may be more vulnerable than one thinks for one reason - they are fixed targets. It depends though. If they are hardened and built in large enough numbers, taking them all out will be hard.

      Likewise, they have to be supplied and that could be a weak point.

    5. What about AAW sub? It would use ELINT & AEW data-links to localize targets (especially since tankers, AEW, and cargo aircraft tend to have fixed routes and orbits), then deploy a Floating Radar (the opposite of the dipping sonar) for targeting.

  5. Just a thought... can a tanker aircraft incorporate the new radar jammer designated for the growler ? Would this be sufficient to jam the radars of aircraft seeking out the tankers ?

    1. Of course the tanker would need to be aware it's being shadowed to begin to start the radar jamming.

    2. A UAV could use optical sensors or a combination thereof.

  6. UAV or fighters, aerial refueling tankers have been targets since they were introduced.

    The current impact will largely be felt by bombers and C4ISR assets long before TACAIR.

    The "boom" was designed to support bomber refueling, not fighters.


  7. These have already been developed by the USAF. But no one has figured out their fighter value, except this guy: http://www.g2mil.com/fighter_uavs.htm


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