Robots in arms
Posted by aogSaturday, 08 December 2007 at 18:04 TrackBack Ping URL

Winds of Change has a post about the state of fighter development in the Anglosphere which laments the demise of less than top of the line fighters. The problem here is that as the fighter quality goes up, the number purchased goes down, along with reliability, so that the effective amount of fighter hours available goes down very quickly.

I can certainly see why this is would be a problem, but I wonder if the Anglosphere, and in particular the USA, is capable of dealing with it in the straight forward way. Because there is so much possible, it’s probably institutionally impossible to avoid mission creep enough to avoid the tipping point where you might as well go top of the line. It might be an argument for splitting air superiority and air support in to seperate parts of the military, giving the latter to the Army and Marines. Given that those branches are experiencing actual combat (unlike, to a large extent, the Air Froce) one suspects that weapon development would focus much more on what’s useful on current battle fields rather than purely theoretical ones.

What I think will happen is that the place formerly occupied by low end fighters (support, combat against low capability opponents, etc.) will be taken over by unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV). Seriously, if you were grunt, would you rather have some Air Force fly boy running your air support, or a fellow grunt with a joystick? That’s not to mention that one could get by with either cheaper aircraft1 or riskier flight profiles because of the lack of a pilot. There will certainly be a lot of resistance, but live combat has a way of overcoming careerism. Given possible budget issues, the Air Force might be tempted to offload that expense on another branch while it concentrates on air supremacy against … well, some other nation that can build and afford top of the line fighters. But my lack of ability to name such an opponent hasn’t stopped such development yet, so I don’t see why it would in the future.

In the mid to long term, I expect our military forces to accrete robotic combat companions, who can be sent to the really dangerous stuff, including pilots. In the end, rather than trying to compete at the same level as our not so high tech opponents, we’ll let robots handle it while our manned systems continue to be the best we can build.

fn1.Although there’s some reason to doubt that as well, for the same reason we can’t build cheap manned fighters.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Hey Skipper Sunday, 09 December 2007 at 14:59


I’m not sure I buy the reliability issue, particularly with respect to engines (which the Winds of Change post included).

Modern FADEC engines are way, hugely, vastly, more reliable than their predecessors.

As for other systems, it may not be an entirely fair comparison. Yes, Mcfighters might well be more reliable, in that both their launch reliability are higher, and their maintenance man-hours per flight hour are lower.


In reading the comments at Winds of Change, I didn’t see anyone mention the results of exercises pitting squadrons of the most dominant fighter ever — the F-15 — against the F-22.

The kill ratio was 144 F-15s lost, compared to no F-22s. Through pilots I know, no F-15 pilot ever got a shot off, or even saw a Raptor.

So, I’m not entirely sure what is to be dealt with. Presuming the game wasn’t rigged, the F-22 so raises the bar that attempting to engage them amounts to suicide. There is a whole level of warfare about which we can worry a lot less if our adversary knows at the outset he will be operating under our air supremacy.

Regarding CAS, there are several problems with UCAVs. If they are small enough to be deployed with the grunts, then their payload will be practically nil. Large enough to have a decent payload, then they require significant expertise to operate. I agree the AF has periodically made the mistake of neglecting CAS, I just don’t think the unavoidable Army mindset will lead to better results; nor will it likely successfully deal with the power projection requirements that come along with the territory.

Also, AFAIK, the Army is not complaining about the AFs CAS capability.

Annoying Old Guy Sunday, 09 December 2007 at 22:25

My reading of the reliability issue is that any single component (such as engines) is more reliable but there are so many systems that the overall reliability drops.

I think no one mentioned that sort of scenario because it has no application in the real world. In what possible conflict would there be an air battle anything like that? It’s already basically suicide to go up against the USAF, the F-22 is gilding the lilly. What opponent would not assume we would have air supremacy even without the F-22?

Further, given the dispersed and low tech nature of the enemy, a few invincible aircraft won’t be useful. A lot of less sophisticated but still near invincible compared to the opponent aircraft would be a lot more useful.

And that, really, is the primary point of the original post, that the USAF is gearing up for ever more overkill while not gearing up for the nature of expected combat.

P.S. As for Army vs. USAF supplied CAS, are you saying that the Army had no complaints about terminating the A-10 program?

Hey Skipper Sunday, 09 December 2007 at 23:01

In what possible conflict would there be an air battle anything like that?

None, which is precisely the point of the F-22. That is what I mean by a single weapons system making it unnecessary for us to worry about an opponent getting the idea they can engage in any warfare that requires some sort of air control.

There are fighters equal, or even slightly superior, to the F-15/16/18. Our opponents lack quantity, and are behind in command and control. Both those problems are a doddle (particularly for the Chinese), compared to countering the F-22. How much is an airplane worth if it prevents the Chinese invading Taiwan?

My reading of the reliability issue is that most of it has to do with teething problems. As an airframe, the F-22 doesn’t have any more systems than any other modern aircraft. It does have more computers, but solid state devices have gotten so astonishingly reliable that is just doesn’t seem likely they will cause significant reliability hits. (Just before the F-111 was retired, some of the airplanes had analog units, such as INSs, flight control computers, etc replaced with digital counterparts. The airplane’s reliability, with the same number of systems, skyrocketed. For some units, like the RLG INS, there was no MTBF, because none had ever failed. Similarly, the MD-11, which has scads more computers than the DC-10, is far more reliable).

With regard to CAS, I am simply not aware of any shortfall in USAF capability with respect to army requirements (yes, the AFs repeated attempts to cancel the A-10 were astonishingly stupid); in fact, advances in weaponry have tended to decouple the airframe from weapon delivery. Who knew the B-52 would become a very effective CAS aircraft?

This point is very important: do not allow the F-22 to distract from things like GPS/INS guided weapons so precise that we are busy making bombs smaller.

But if we ever get an opponent with the economic wherewithal to build 500 Mig-29s, we are going to wish we had something more to bring to the table than the F-15.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 10 December 2007 at 09:06

I was just wondering on what planet you expect to find an opponent for the USA with the economic wherewithal to build 500 Mig-29s and then train pilots for them.

Hey Skipper Monday, 10 December 2007 at 14:32


Are you willing to discount China in 20 years?

I’m not.

Which is why, expensive as it is and (having talked to some of my friends who are still in the service) as much as it is giving the AF serious budgetary problems in the short-medium term, if it succeeds in forcing a potential competitor to give up the race before it is started, then it is cheap at twice the price.

Keep in mind that most of the F-22 cost is already sunk. Purchasing additional fighters at about $100-135M apiece is not a particularly astronomical price.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 10 December 2007 at 21:41

Yes. Completely.

While the development costs are sunk, ongoing maintenance can play havoc with budgets as well. Just consider what keeping the Space Shuttle running did to NASA.

Also, in order to succeed in breaking a potential competitor, it must be that that competitor isn’t already broken. That’s the key point you don’t address in lauding the capabilities of the F-22. But it’s a question that central to those who don’t think so highly of the acquisition.

Hey Skipper Tuesday, 11 December 2007 at 01:16


You make the mistake of static analysis.

If we don’t replace the Eagle in the next 15 years, then we will not have any air - air capability at all.

Simply re-opening the Eagle production line doesn’t solve the problem, because, at the moment, there are other more-than-peer-competitor airframes out there, and those competitors will have a powerful incentive to further improve those airframes.

With the F-22 on the scene, any consequent kill ratio makes that a non-starter.

For a more thorough discussion, go to AboveTopSecret and search on “mmh”

IIRC, the normal MMH:FH ratio for the F-15 is roughly 20:1.

I’ll bet you a (bottle of your favorite adult beverage / book / bragging rights etc) that the F-22 MMH:FH in five years will be less than 16:1.

cjm Tuesday, 11 December 2007 at 13:59

from what i have read, and no claims to authority here :), CAS is moving more toward guided artillery shells and away from air bourne weaponry. In this regard,a small UAV is adequate for lighting up targets. This is certainly the case in Iraq, where the AF has played a smaller than usual role.

Hey Skipper Thursday, 13 December 2007 at 01:21


I have read similar things, which don’t surprise me.

For some missions, it is becoming less about the platform, and more about the weapon itself. (Which is why the B-52 can do CAS, something that would have been completely out of the question 10 years ago.)

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