Wednesday, 21 September 2011

F-X: Ahead of or behind the curve?

Boeing unveils their concept for a sixth-generation fighter plane.  It looks exciting, but there aren't any orders and I'll be surprised if any turn up.  By the time this craft is ready for the prototype stage combat UAVs will have advanced to the point where manned fighters are more C&C platforms or very specialised mission craft.

My prediction is that the F-35 will be the last front-line fighter made by a Western power.


eon said...

Agreed. And the next "ace" in the USAF, USN, RAF, etc., will get his or her kills sitting a long way from the furball.

Which suits me just fine. The IJN lost most of its top-rated combat fliers at Midway, due to the loss of their carriers. We lost much of the cream of our force over Hanoi, dead or in the Hilton.

If our adversaries stick to manned fighters, etc., every time they come up against UAVs on our side, even in an even exchange, they lose irreplaceable talent. We, on the other hand, just lose replaceable airframes.

It's the logic of the cruise missile taken to its sensible conclusion. Machines are expendable; people are not. And if the mission requires the sacrifice of the platform to get the job done, that's an acceptable price to pay.

It beats B-17s, B-24s, Lancs and Halibags over the Rhineland, or B-29s over Tokyo, by a mile, imho.



Cthel said...

The problem with all these predictions about the replacement of manned fighters by UAVs is they very rarely explain how control links will be maintained in a war situation.

When you're fighting people with no real electronic warfare capability (3rd world terrorists, for example) this is not really an issue - your opponent has no way of interfering with your satellite communication links.

However, if you are fighting an opponent who has the capability to degrade (or even worse, disable) your satellite links, then your fancy remote-control planes will be significantly less effective.

There are only 2 real approaches to getting around this problem; either remove the need for a command link, or design a non-jammable (non-satellite) comm link.

Unfortunately, the former approach is essential AI based, with all the attendant problems that brings (developing said AI, not to mention trusting the AI enough to give it weapons)

The second approach is more promising, with line-of-sight systems such as laser or tight-beam offering pretty high degrees of robustness. However, due to the line-of-sight nature, there are technical issues. Either you have the controller somewhere in line-of-sight (which means airborne if you want them to be far enough away from the the battle for safely), which still leaves them well within the danger zone; or you have a system of relay points, probably stealthy high-altitude drones, which renders the system vulnerable to the destruction of the relay drones.

Perhaps the best approach is the design of "optionally manned" aircraft - if you are fighting a low-tech opponent, the aircraft could be employed as drones, but if comms are at risk, the system can still be used.

There are issues with such systems, for example carrying around excess weight (the life-support systems in the unmanned mode, the comm-link when operating manned); this could be overcome by designing interchangeable cockpits that could be dropped in.