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What are We Saving this Capability For?


With due respect, I don’t really get this:

First, there’s the question of capacity. Once you phase out a military capacity, it becomes extremely difficult to restore it. That goes for manpower capacity (i.e., training), but also for industrial capacity. Clearly there will still be a need for, and training of, jet fighter pilots to man the already existing fleet. But if drones become the central element of air power moving forward, both manpower and industrial capacity for piloted fighters will suffer. And the cost of restoring them when needed will then become magnified.

Second, the idea that traditional air dominance is no longer relevant — that is, that we will never need to restore a piloted fighter plane capacity — might be doctrinally sound, as Ibn Muqawama suggests. But I have my doubts as to whether it will survive a dose of reality. If war were decided by doctrines, or prevented by deterrence, it’s unlikely there would ever be any shooting. But the truth is, wars happen, often in the face of overwhelming logic arguing against them. And when the shooting starts, it often reveals the limitations of doctrine (e.g., the Maginot Line), or the limitations of an adversary’s ability to implement it. To assume, a priori, that our air dominance will be ineffective because the Chinese intend to accurately target our forward air bases with missiles is to put quite a bit of faith in the Chinese army’s ability to accomplish its objectives.

The question isn’t really one of the relevance of air superiority, or the likelihood of war with China. Rather, we’re talking about the imminent reality that drones (with human controllers) will, in the foreseeable future, be better able to handle air superiority missions than aircraft with human pilots. The reasons for this are fairly clear; pilot-less aircraft aren’t restricted in terms of speed and maneuverability by the frailty of the human body, and drones don’t need to make space for a human life support system. We’re certainly not there yet, as the visual capability of the human head hasn’t yet been matched by drone sensors, but it’s not difficult to project to a period in which air superiority drones are controlled by remote pilots. Indeed, given that drones are cheap and don’t actually need to be as good as the best air superiority aircraft, I’d be curious as to whether anyone has wargamed out a conflict between conventional fighter aircraft and a swarm of AAM armed drones. Moreover, I think we’ve already demonstrated that drones can achieve similar levels of ground attack effectiveness as piloted aircraft.

One important caveat is command and control; if the link between the drone and the remote pilot is disrupted, then you have a real problem. Given, however, that modern piloted aircraft require tight network integration, I’m not sure that this differentiates drones from pilots as much as you would think. Finally, I’m singularly unconvinced by the notion that we need to maintain industrial and training capacity into the indefinite future for weapon systems that we’ve identified as obsolete. The need to keep open lines of production isn’t a silly concern; the Royal Navy has effectively demonstrated the difficulties presented by trying to restart major SSN and CV projects after a long-term lag. But sad as it may be, we don’t build heavy gun armed battleships anymore.

As Judah points out, the production lines for manned fighter aircraft will remain for some time, as will the training infrastructure for pilots. I think, however, that we’re finally at the vista from which we can see the end of the manned fighter/bomber aircraft.

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