Next Generation Air Dominance
Vol 11 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2018
An articulation of how technology is driving emerging capabilities to assert and maintain air dominance
Saturday, January 27, 2018
All major Air Forces are currently flying the 4th-plus generation aircraft. US Air Force (USAF) has been flying the F-22 and F-35 which are 5th generation aircraft. 5th generation aircraft are under induction in Russia and China. Indian Air Force (IAF) will have its first 5th generation in FGFA, and later the indigenous DRDO’s AMCA. It takes nearly two decades for advanced countries to evolve a modern fighter/bomber aircraft platform and the associated avionics and weapon systems. The sixth generation fighters are already evolving. For long, military aviation doctrines and requirements drove technology. Today, technologies are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics. As the aerial platforms evolve the future air dominance concepts will change. Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart structures, directed energy weapons (DEW) and hybrid systems will dictate the future. It is time to visit our future aircraft plans and our air dominance strategy.
Air Dominance is a status in the air where one side holds complete control of air warfare and air power. It is a “degree of air superiority” wherein the opposing air force is incapable of effective interference. For defence of any nation, and for freedom of launch of operations by the surface forces, air dominance is a desired requirement.
Air power has dominated all major conflicts since World War II. Outcome of Arab-Israeli wars, 1971 Bangladesh liberation, Falklands, Bekaa Valley, Kosovo, the Gulf wars, and Afghanistan among others are great examples. Ideal is Air supremacy which is the highest level, where a side holds complete control of the skies. The same requires high degree of military power asymmetry between the two sides. The next best is Air superiority, where a side is in a more favorable position than the opponent. The “degree of dominance” could be in a given area and given time-space.
Emerging Air Threats
Future air dominance has to cater for emerging new threats. The world now includes eight overt nuclear powers, one covert nuclear power (Israel), and at least one nuclear aspirant (Iran). Non-Proliferation (nuclear weapons) Treaty (NPT) is still not fully effective. More nuclear weapon aspirants like Saudi Arabia wait on the side lines. More and more countries are acquiring missile technology. Surface, sub-surface, and air launched missiles are becoming faster, more accurate, have longer range and larger multiple warheads. The weapon delivering air platforms are becoming faster and more efficient for deeper penetration. The future is uninhabited air vehicles (UAV). Soon all missions including the heavy-lift would be flown by UAVs using AI. The non-state actors and rogue regimes which follow no international norms and have no ethics are trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. They could be a difficult to define threat. Any future air dominance plan would have to factor in all this.
Aircraft Design Features
The 6th generation fighter broad features will be longer range, higher sustained cruise speed, greater payload, broadband low observability, enhanced sensors with networking capabilities with a focus on battle management, and optionally manned. The rapidly evolving global defense landscape is already developing technologies to deter current and emerging threats and to produce the non-linear, game-changing combat capabilities. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works from whose stable are aircraft like SR-71, F-117, F-22 and F-35, is working alongside the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), US Air Force (USAF), and US Navy to determine viable approaches to maintain air dominance capabilities in the post-2035 era. Boeing and Northrop Grumman are others in the fray for air dominance systems. The tailless flying wing, “cranked kite” design concept currently appears the way forward for future fighter aircraft.
Evolving Technologies Approach
Any system must be designed with aim for maintaining a competitive advantage in an austere budget environment. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development. Things will be build faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change ability to respond to conflict. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, with optionally manned options, both large and small, will have high powered sensors to provide crisp, clear imagery and data. More advanced, persistent ISR systems are evolving. Stealth technology, speed and improved sensors will allow to penetrate and operate in a hostile environment.
Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions, and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, yet drive down costs. Robotics offer endless opportunity for bomb disposal and crater clearing in NBC environment. Uninhabited helicopter convoys will deliver supplies to troops deployed on combat front lines.
The Transformer, a flexible aircraft system, will combine smaller jets flying together for long flights to increase range by saving fuel through reduced drag, before having them split apart to quickly adapt to take individual defensive or offensive tasks.
The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, more structurally efficient and have flexibility compared to conventional wings. This wing will maximize structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel.
The Survivor technology allows aircraft to quickly heal themselves from damage sustained in flight. Lightweight adhesive fluid inside a pattern of carbon nano-tubes is released at the damaged part for quick healing. This will allow to complete missions even in very hostile threat environment.
Additive manufacturing has emerged as a game changing technology that cuts cycle time and brings affordability to production. Smaller UAVs would be created by super high-tech on-board 3D printers using this technique. 3-D printing works by taking a material—a titanium wire or polymer powder, for example—melting it little-by-little with a laser or electron beam and depositing the material where it needs to be according to a computer-generated blueprint. On an average it results in 50 percent reduction in production time compared to traditional machining methods. Additive manufacture creates a world with spare parts on demand. Faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics, and customized weapons.
Future military missions require aircraft equipped with high-performance avionics. Compact, airborne systems capable of delivering robust processing power, mission-critical communications, high-resolution targeting imagery, and increased situational awareness. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth, which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. A range of next-generation technologies may be explored including maximum sensor connectivity, and electronically configured “smart skins.” Mission computer systems and network-centric payload processing units enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Data fusion of radar, infrared and EW systems is required for integrated instantaneous, high-fidelity view of ongoing operations for situational awareness of pilots and decision-makers.
Larger on-board processing requires power which generates heat and requires cooling. Thermally efficient, high-performance computing onboard the aircraft is essential. In the absence of data-link bandwidth, avionics require more fusion algorithms that can fuse all the data before transmission. Cloud computing paradigm is introduced to avionics systems in order to develop a kind of cross-platform resource integration. An open architecture design is desired, so different sensors, payloads, and weapons can be plugged in for a specific mission. Next-generation avionics would be smaller, more efficient and capable of operating under extreme conditions. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semiconductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. Infrared Search and Track Systems both air and ground based, are becoming more sensitive and reliable. Future stealthy fighter aircraft will have to keep cool in order to remain undetected. Engine technologies like scramjets would enable an aircraft to cruise at supersonic speeds without afterburner.
Next Generation Air Dominance - Fighters 1210
USAF and USN are anticipated to field their first sixth-generation fighters in the 2025–30 time zone. Each service will run its own sixth generation fighter program to avoid compromises. The F-X program of USAF looks at replacing the F-15 Eagle, and the F-22 Raptor, and the FA-XX program aims to replace the US Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. USN would prefer AI dominated optionally manned platform. One key attribute would be longer reach not only for airplane but also weapons. Longer reach involves efficient propulsion. Another critical capability is high speed. Will have some low-observable capabilities. Survivability would also require ultra-lightweight armor and counter-directed energy capabilities. The concept is a tailless twin-engine stealth fighter with canards. It will have power and cooling systems for DEW, and sensors that can detect small radar cross-section targets; and cyber warfare ability for attack and defence. DEWs will fire a concentrated beam of energy at the speed of light against airborne or ground targets with high accuracy and much lower cost. Aircraft must provide air supremacy with a multi-role strike capability in an anti-access/area denied operational environment. Primary missions include air warfare, strike warfare, surface warfare, and close air support among others.
USAF fighter could be larger and more resembling a bomber. Analyzing over 1,450 air-to-air engagements since 1965, it is found that long-range weapons and sensors have dramatically decreased instances of dog-fighting. As a result, building a fighter significantly larger relying on enhanced sensors, signature control, networked situational awareness, and very-long-range weapons to complete engagements before being detected or tracked is on the cards. Larger planes would have greater range that would enable them to be stationed further from a combat zone, have greater radar and IR detection capabilities, and carry bigger and longer-range missiles. USAF seeks a fighter with “enhanced capabilities in reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration, weapons effects and self-healing structures. Advanced Adaptive Versatile Engine technology to allow longer ranges and higher performance will be ready along with fighters in 2028-2032 timeframes. This will allow variable ratios of bypass and compression airflow to improve efficiency. Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and Boeing, all have released several mock-ups of future fighter concepts. China is investing heavily in next generation integrated air defense systems that have far greater range, sensor fidelity and data fusion abilities.
Stealth Tanker and Cargo Aircraft
Fighters like the F-35 and F-22 may be stealthy, but their support assets, like aerial tankers—KC-135R, KC-10A, KC-46A are not. The tanker will be a target. And therefore, either stealth tankers or fighters with long range is the choice. Alternatively, USAF could rapidly develop and procure unmanned combat air vehicles which offer far greater range and loitering time. USAF also needs ‘heavy stealth revolution’ for low observable tankers, transports, and bombers. USAF could adapt the new stealth bomber design for the stealth tanker/transport role. It will also give ability to insert special operations teams deep behind enemy lines via a stealthy high-altitude penetrating cargo aircraft. The Speed Agile Concept Demonstrator (SACD) concept is a four-engine, multi-mission aircraft that offers speed agility; operates routinely from short, improvised airfields; carries larger and heavier payloads; and employs precise and simple flight controls. The SACD’s high-efficiency STOL design incorporates a hybrid powered lift system. Lockheed is open to partnering with Boeing on this.
Next generation Air Dominance Weapons
USAF is developing a new air-to-air missile, dubbed the Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) for 2030s. SACM would promise an improved solid rocket motor having
synergized control enabled by combined aero-attitude control and thrust vectoring. This low-weight missile will have improved ‘high off bore sight’ for rear hemisphere kills and ‘lower cost per kill.’ The missile would also incorporate energy optimizing guidance, navigation and control. A sixth-generation missile could replace AMRAAM. A survivable, long-range missile with combined air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities is being evolved. Range would be a big factor to counter potential adversaries carrying Chinese PL-15. DARPA’s triple target terminator (T3) program envisions combined capabilities of Raytheon’s AIM-120 and AGM-88 High-speed
Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM).
Development of solid-state airborne laser capability is already underway. The solid-state laser systems defensively create a sanitized sphere of safety around the aircraft, shooting down or critically damaging incoming missiles and approaching aircraft. They can also be used offensively, even attacking targets on the ground, such as individual people, with pinpoint precision, or shooting down ballistic missiles and other targets traditionally attacked by larger ground or sea-based weapon systems. Controlling aircraft’s heat signature while using laser weaponry will be an issue. One option is to develop a thermal accumulator.
Other Sixth Generation Aircraft Programs
Japanese sixth-generation fighter would be based on concept of aircraft informed, intelligent and instantaneous. Japan already conducted the first flight of the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin test-bed aircraft for this project. Russia says the aircraft will most likely be pilotless. For now the FGFA Sukhoi Su-57 is being inducted. The Mikoyan MiG-41 is a sixth-generation jet fighter interceptor aircraft currently being developed for the Russian Air Force. France and Germany announced they would jointly develop a new combat aircraft to replace the Eurofighter, Tornado and Rafale. It is likely be a twin-seat “system of systems” aircraft acting as a combat platform as well as controlling UCAVs. UK is committing to a next generation fighter program to potentially replace the Eurofighter Typhoon post-2030. However, the Eurofighter Typhoon has since had its intended service life extended to around 2040. China is still evolving its J-20 and J-31. Some Chinese publications are talking of a sixth generation aircraft, referred to as Huolong (Fire Dragon).
Clearly the future air dominance will be by optionally manned aircraft. Combat will be at very large distances requiring aircraft and missiles with longer range and difficult to be seen. The plane and pilot will sense the battle-space, steer between threats, and get into the optimum position to launch. Traditional wingman will move upward of 10, 15, 20 nautical miles away from leader. Data fusion and fast flow will be important. The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) or Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF) is a fifth-generation fighter being developed by India and Russia. The Indian version will be a two-seater for pilot and co-pilot/Weapon Systems Operator (WSO). The HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is an Indian program of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. It is a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth super-maneuverable all weather multirole fighter aircraft. India will have to master higher end technologies in the full spectrum of aircraft and weapon building. With the current state of LCA, we have miles to go. The IAF and India’s defence-scientific-industrial community must quickly board the band-wagon lest we are once again left behind.