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Sky’s the Limit: The Future of Air Warfare 

By Jordan Rosenquist, 20 October 2023 

Source: Creative Commons

The future is here. Unmanned systems are revolutionizing the way air warfare is conducted, offering incredible benefits that transcend the limits of human capabilities. But fully autonomous weapon systems have considerable drawbacks due to the technology’s immaturity. So, global air forces continue to place humans in the cockpit, at least for the time being. 

Teaming manned and unmanned systems is the best of both worlds. It leverages the intuition, awareness, and decision-making of a human pilot with the affordability, design flexibility and increased durability of a drone. When initially deployed into real combat scenarios, these systems will be relatively limited. But the economic and technological forces pushing for further adoption suggest that they will exponentially improve in terms of capabilities, making them an indispensable asset of future air defense systems and strategies. 

The AI Allure 

The world superpowers are working tirelessly to unlock the full power of autonomy, especially in the military sector. Embracing this technology offers nations an incredible competitive advantage in a wide range of defense applications. Unmanned systems excel in processing familiar information quickly and accurately and, unlike a manned system, do not get tired, hungry, or bored. 

Drones are particularly well suited for jobs that are boring, repetitive, simple, and dangerous. If the job is predictable but requires some level of consistency and precision, such as air to air refueling of the M22 Stingray, then it would be worthwhile to scope out a potential unmanned solution. Sophisticated autonomous defense systems are undoubtedly a force multiplier, and thus offer nations a competitive advantage and sizable incentive to harness its full potential. 

Limitations of Autonomy 

The intelligence of autonomous systems is impressive, but it is inherently limited. A system’s autonomous core might have a remarkable ability to process information and execute predetermined tasks, but their narrow scope allows their strengths to often be circumvented by extraneous variables unforeseen by the programmer. Their deficiency in common sense reasoning usually prevents them from being able to self correct. The system’s effectiveness hinges on the extent and quality of the programming and learning process utilized during its creation. 

Dr. Paul Shaw, a former US Secretary of Defense employee, recounts an incident during which an autonomous system at DARPA was placed in the middle of a circle and a team of eight marines was tasked with approaching the machine and touching it without being detected. The marines outsmarted it by somersaulting 300 meters, hiding under a cardboard box, and wore the branches of a fig tree, eventually getting close enough to touch the machine and win the challenge. In Shaw’s book, he says that “the AI system had been trained to detect humans walking, not humans somersaulting, hiding in a cardboard box, or disguised as a tree. But these simple tricks, which a human would have easily seen through, were enough to break the algorithm.” This proves that while you can design a program or train an AI system to be incredible at certain predetermined tasks, it may be terrible at dealing with almost everything else. 

You can absolutely iterate and improve recognition and decision making over time but you can’t exactly reduce the entire sum of human knowledge and common sense down to a series of if-then statements that an AI can be trained on. This counters the common misconception that AI can improve all aspects of problem-solving and decision-making through an allegedly all-encompassing scope. By recognizing these boundaries, we can leverage the advantages of autonomous systems while still being cognizant of their innate limitations in the context of air warfare. 

Best of Both Worlds 

By combining manned and unmanned systems into a unified team that collaborates with and reinforces each other, militaries can reap the benefits of both, and thus fuse human capabilities with those of autonomous systems. The unmanned elements contribute cost-effective scale and flexibility to the unit, while the manned components provide their expertise in situation assessment, ability to respond to novel or unknown scenarios, and authority to make crucial high-stakes decisions. For example, consider an aviation strike package consisting of four manned aircraft overseeing a supporting fleet of 12 drone platforms. In this scenario, the human pilots take on the roles of observation, decision-making, and taking action, whereas the drones are tasked with diligently executing their orders. 

The synergy between the manned and unmanned aircraft in this team can be optimized through the implementation of cutting-edge communication systems, a custom-tailored interface, and an advanced fusion engine. These components will work in harmony to stitch together incoming data, streamline processes, and enhance overall efficiency. All the involved variables are interconnected, thus facilitating seamless communication and the effective integration of pertinent information. 

When a pilot receives a flood of fragmented and disorganized data, it hinders their ability to make prompt and informed decisions, often leading to confusion and the convolution of critical information. Therefore, it becomes imperative to effectively employ the optimization capabilities of artificial intelligence, which should serve as an intermediary between the sensor data and the pilot themselves. This method will fuse and transform the scattered data points into actionable intelligence that enables informed decision-making. Forming teams of both human-piloted and unmanned aircraft leverages the strengths of each component while still integrating advanced technology like artificial intelligence into military operations in a more controlled manner. 

The Great Compromise 

In the realm of military strategy and autonomous systems, the political and moral reality is that most nations prefer the loss of an unmanned piece of equipment over the loss of an actual human operator in a combat scenario. But, they also want people to be responsible for decisions that may lead to the injury or death of other people and ultimately be able to hold someone accountable, not a machine. So, defense experts continue to emphasize the importance of human engagement due to its ability to provide on-the-ground assessment of situations and the capacity to make potentially challenging decisions for which they will be responsible. Politically, it is more palatable for a system to fail because of human error rather than machine error because it warrants great accountability and a clear chain of responsibility, which coincides with public and political expectations. 

At the same time, powerful nations feel a strong urge to fully leverage the capability of unmanned systems, including their reduced risk, affordability, and unique capabilities. But giving machines the ability to independently decide when and how to deploy lethal force is considered problematic by many nations, especially from a policy perspective. So, they tend to implement legal restrictions surrounding the development and deployment of these weapons. In the United States, for example, creating an autonomous weapon requires the approval of “a vast array of senior defense officials”, as outlined by DoD directive 3000.09

As a result, what most countries aim for and what most systems utilize is the compromised position of semi-autonomy. Semi-autonomous weapons are designed to engage individual targets or specific target groups that have been selected by a human operator. Colonel Marc Pelini, division chief for capabilities and requirements, Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, says that “based on the existing Department of Defense policy, you have to have a human in the decision cycle at some point to authorize the engagement”. For instance, if a pilot instructs a semi-autonomous drone to launch a missile at a nearby tank, the drone would calculate its flight path towards the target and determine exactly when it’s going to fire the missile. But the ultimate decision to destroy the target rests solely on the shoulders of an accountable and hopefully rational human operator. This semi-autonomous middle ground works to alleviate the political concerns regarding the lack of accountability and the strategic concerns about harnessing the power of next-generation technology. 

Thinking Outside the Box 

By developing systems that combine the benefits of autonomy with the moral and political responsibility of a human operator, nations will gain an ethical yet competitive advantage in the context of military strategy. For instance, the 6th generation fighter utilizes its advanced sensors to locate a target while the human pilot is responsible for making the decision to engage that target. But when considering recent developments in autonomous technology, the missile can be fired from one of the accompanying drones instead of the manned system opening its weapon bays and making itself temporarily more vulnerable to detection by enemy sensors. This solution dictates that the decision to engage rests solely with the human operator and relieves the political and moral concerns of wanting a human to be responsible rather than a machine. It simultaneously gives the platform the benefits of unmanned systems, namely the ability to carry a bigger and more diverse selection of weapons on the platform. 

Integrating semi-autonomous technology into military aircraft can revolutionize their design and respective capabilities. By eliminating the need for a human operator, these planes can shed several features like interfaces, cockpit space, oxygen, windows, and ejector seats since they are now rendered nonessential without the pilot in the cockpit. This reduction in weight and volume allows the technology to reach new lengths in aerodynamics. For example, the aircraft can now sustain an increased g-force tolerance because it is no longer limited to what the human body can tolerate but rather what the materials it’s made of can handle. Semi-autonomy will transform the design of military aircraft through the expansion of operational capabilities due to its ability to transcend human limitations. 

These semi-autonomous systems open the door to more nuanced innovation on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. Instead of using drones to carry the missiles, nations could use another manned aircraft as the shooter while the more advanced equipment acts as the spotter. This is demonstrated in the US air force, given their prospective purchase of F-15EX aircraft, which is a highly upgraded 4th generation design with no stealth characteristics. Despite its high price tag and its lack of ability to easily enter enemy airspace, it brings an enormous benefit: upgraded payload. While an F-35 can only carry 4 AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles internally, the F-15EX can carry 12. Plus, if larger missiles prove to be more advantageous but they don’t fit inside the weapon bays on the F-35, the F-15EX would likely be able to carry them and pick up the slack. In this sense, it would operate like an outsider missile truck by staying further away from the high threat zone to stay safe while still providing the missile systems with which to engage targets that have been identified by the F-35 or even the NGAD. 

But, in relying heavily on human operators, this approach fails to fuse together the benefits of manned and unmanned systems and thus suffers the associated limitations such as having to stay further away due to increased vulnerability, and putting more human pilot lives at risk. On the other hand, if those missiles were carried by smaller stealthy drones, they would be able to get closer to the target and take more risks because the unmanned system is more disposable. By leaning into the benefits of autonomy, nations will build more adaptive, cohesive, and powerful air force capabilities. If they shun this technology, they will get left behind. 

More Bang for Your Buck 

A powerful financial strategy is key to leveraging the greatest available technology within the constraints of governments’ defense budgets. Semi-autonomous weapons act as a force multiplier; so, effectively operationalizing these systems brings distinct advantages to their user. These systems are generally cheaper, smaller, and easier to replicate compared to their manned counterparts. Governments will also greatly reduce the amount they spend on pilot salaries, retirement, and health benefits which will free up a significant portion of their budget. This reallocation demonstrates a dynamic financial strategy that aligns with the goals of air forces around the globe. 

Yet, harnessing the power of the most advanced technology available within their respective defense budgets is no small feat especially when considering the current generation of heavily equipped 6th generation fighters designed to thrive in challenging environments, making them inherently less disposable. For example, the manned component of the US Air Force is likely to include stealth features, internally stowed weapons, and defense suites in order to enhance their operational effectiveness. While the success of the mission heavily relies on these aspects, they lead to limited payloads relative to the aircraft’s size because they are designed to operate using exclusively internal weapon bays. The inability to externally mount non-stealthy ordinance onto these platforms is the price the nation’s air force must pay in order to maintain its core advantage: stealth. These advanced planes also come with a high price tag, which disincentivizes their mass production since military budgets are inherently limited with several competing priorities. 

A limited air fleet combined with a restricted payload per aircraft equals a more constrained supply of ordinance that the nation can bring to the flight. For example, if the Americans bought a German-developed new generation air-to-air missile but it didn’t fit into the internal bay of the F-22 or the F-35, they would face the dilemma of either heavily investing in retrofitting the aircraft to fit the new munition or replacing them with a whole new generation of fighters. But emerging technology offers an exponentially better solution. Now, the US could design a drone capable of carrying the German missile and integrate it into the existing force and the applicable strike package. 

These emerging trends highlight the complex dynamic between technological innovation and budget-conscious defense strategies. Semi-autonomous systems offer increased payload capacity, cost-effectiveness, and mission adaptability, which effectively challenges the traditional frameworks of airpower. As these systems advance and become more established in air forces globally, they bring both new opportunities and new challenges for nations in enhancing their military capabilities within the constraints of their budget. Striking a sustainable and strategic balance between expensive sophisticated manned platforms and cheaper semi-autonomous alternatives is key. This equilibrium empowers air forces to maximize their budgetary resources while upholding a robust defense capacity, thus gaining more bang for their buck. 

Adversaries’ Programs 

Examining how different nations align their military capabilities with their financial constraints in the face of rapidly evolving technology is key to constructing effective defense strategies. European nations, namely France, Spain, and Germany, have evaluated the requirements of a future air conflict and appear to have chosen that focusing their respective resources on a small, cheap, and disposable teaming drone is the best way forward. 

Russia has taken a different route. They have opted for a heavy attack drone, the Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik (or Hunter), which is equipped with sensors tailored for teaming functions. Exercises involving sensor data sharing between the S-70 and the SU-57 demonstrate Russia’s vision of future coordinated operations. On paper this drone is impressive, but like most of the next-generation technology of Russia’s defense industrial base, it is very difficult to verify if it actually has these capabilities. Their ability to find the necessary resources to build the S-70 at scale and meet asserted production timelines and quantities is also doubtful, given their current entrenchment in a major war with Ukraine. Until this new system is fully developed and operationalized, the true extent of its impact on modern and future air warfare is uncertain. 

China, on the other hand, is notably interested in drone teaming concepts since they envision the next generation of air warfare to include the fusion of manned and unmanned systems. Their many projects in the development and testing phases, such as the GJ-11 Sharp Sword and the J-20, demonstrate their commitment to this vision. CGI videos released by the Chinese demonstrate the collaboration between these manned and unmanned systems. However, evaluating their progress in developing these teaming concepts and its accompanying drones comes with similar challenges we face when analyzing other areas of Chinese military development. The information is highly classified which leaves external observers with limited intelligence to base their assessments on. While we do know what new drones and aircraft are being developed and tested, and that these endeavors are receiving substantial investments, the lack of transparency regarding project budgets and similar figures hinders a comprehensive analysis. Although the full scope and implications of China’s advancements in aerial combat and semi-autonomy remain uncertain, their strategic investments in these technologies indicate their commitment to reshaping the future of air combat, thus prompting the West to closely monitor their progress and adapt accordingly. 

All Eyes on Us 

Positioned with the world’s leading air warfare capabilities, unmatched research and development prowess, and state-of-the-art aircraft, the United States enjoys a substantial lead in integrating semi-autonomous technology into its air force. To make the most of this competitive edge, prudential monitoring of adversaries’ programs and the responsive adaptation of our own are imperative to maintaining this advantage. 

The United States is likely to differ greatly from its oppositions’ programs. Driven by the demanding requirements of our future systems, including heightened stealth capabilities, extensive functional reach across the Pacific, high cruising speeds, and close operational proximity, the Next-Generation Air Dominance Fighter (NGAD) is likely larger, more ambitious, and more expensive than its predecessors with each unit estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. 

The US Air Force has always strived to thoroughly overmatch their opponents rather than just simply keep pace with other nations. This mentality is reflected in the USAF’s FY 2024 Posture Statement, which says, “as the combat environment and the character of war continue to evolve, our determination to be the leader in speed, agility, and lethality remains an irreplaceable role for the joint team and our allies and partners.” So rather than creating a system that just survives within these challenging environments, the US continues to develop technology that will effectively dominate the combat space. However, the US defense budget faces the challenge of wanting to optimize the best technology while also managing the air force’s gradual shrinking as F-15s and F-16s start to retire. 

In order to reconcile with these inflated budget tensions, innovative approaches are being explored. Collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) is a proposed solution that aims to affordably operationalize more aircraft while simultaneously reaping the benefits of high performance capabilities and sophisticated manned platforms. This approach aligns with their general emphasis being placed on the overall effectiveness of a joint force rather than each individual aircraft. For example, sending one plane to take down an opposing air defense system would be unproductive; instead, constructing strike packages that combine different aircraft and munitions would be more effective. Integrating CCAs into an aircraft team enables the augmentation of the base NGAD or F-35 in order to ensure operational effectiveness. As a result, the USAF intends to buy several CCAs with their current budget request totaling 5.8 billion dollars over the next five years. These units will accompany other aircraft like the NGAD and therefore reap the aforementioned benefits. 

The United States is uniquely positioned to maintain its competitive edge in both aerial combat and semi-autonomous technology. This advantage stems from a relentless commitment to technological superiority as demonstrated in the development of the NGAD. By emphasizing the collective power of a joint force and incorporating CCAs, the US is projected to maintain their dominant position in the combat arena while still incorporating sustainable and agile adaptation in response to changing demands, thus solidifying the long-term relevance of their revered air warfare capabilities. 

The Invisible Arms Race 

In the ever-changing landscape of modern warfare, the newest “arms race” wave is taking on an unprecedented form by hinging on the improvement of semi-autonomous technology, particularly in air defense systems. Nations will soon be engaging in an enormously impactful arms race that will most likely be invisible. The bulk of the revolutionary changes are not found in the physical attributes of the airframes but rather concealed within the intricacies of the AI software. Although the traditional marks of an aircraft’s success, like speed, altitude, and payload, are important, the focus is now shifting towards enhancing the core of the system through AI integration. The arms race no longer centers around conventional advancements in airframes and physical attributes but rather focuses on enhancing the “brains” of defense systems in order to improve autonomous decision-making in dynamic combat scenarios. 

The significance of this invisible arms race is brought to light as nations continue to invest in exploring and refining the capabilities of their AI-integrated air defense systems. Although the payoff from having a sharp autonomy core is massive, this might get initially underestimated because the industry is overall more accustomed to analyzing traditional variables when evaluating an aircraft’s capabilities. Even though this evolution might not be as visually striking as a faster jet or heavier payload would be, it comes with “stealthy” advantages and wide-reaching implications for modern warfare. The ability to outsmart, outmaneuver, and adapt to emerging threats with more sophisticated AI programming offers a distinct strategic edge that nations would be foolish to turn down. 

The invisible arms race in the air defense landscape underscores an epochal shift in modern warfare. This transformation emphasizes the need for a reevaluation of industry standards in regards to aircraft capabilities. Traditional marks of success become less relevant as the emphasis shifts from the physical attributes of the systems to their cognitive capabilities. Getting ahead of this AI wave is critical as the strategic landscape of modern warfare continues to reshape itself. 

The Final Frontier 

As we look towards the future of air warfare, the shift towards semi-autonomy, and even full autonomy, is a rising trend that offers both unprecedented capabilities and significant challenges. In the coming years, we will likely see air defense systems move towards the fully autonomous side of the spectrum. While we will continue to take bold steps forward in the realm of semi-autonomy, we should not embrace full autonomy until the technology is at the appropriate maturity level and is reliable enough to support that kind of responsibility. 

Unmanned systems are already transforming the landscape of air warfare, but their journey to full autonomy hinges on the tenacious refinement of evolving technology to ensure consistent and reliable operation. By combining manned and unmanned systems, we can leverage the intuition, awareness, and nuanced decision-making of a human operator with the cost-effectiveness and flexibility of a drone. These teaming concepts will initially only be used in limited capacities but will soon be considered indispensable assets to modern air warfare. 

The decisions we make today will define the future of air warfare and shape nations’ defense strategies for generations to come. The future is here, and it is ours to shape.