In the realm of battlefield air interdiction and close air support, pilots have always been the most vulnerable factor. Yeah, we built a titanium bathtub to shield them as much as possible from small arms fire and shrapnel from air-burst surface-to-air weaponry. We gave our jets speed, agility and increased threat awareness. That still only partially mitigates the hazard posed to pilots flying CAS missions. At the end of the day, all it takes to ruin a pilot’s day is one SA-7 Grail out of a volley hitting its mark. And that’s a man-portable air defense system (MANPADS), not a larger, more complex and powerful surface-to-air missile low/medium/high altitude (SAM), which have also been proliferated in abundance throughout the world, thanks to the former Soviet Union and, currently, China. So what’s the solution to this? How do we make the mission even safer for the pilot, as much as is possible?
We go unmanned.
This isn’t an unrealistic idea at all. We’ve been developing computers to shoulder our daily burdens for the past 15 years, beginning with handheld devices like the Palm Pilot (remember those?), and now, virtual reality sets that will begin retailing for the price of an iPhone later this year. So you can only imagine the leaps and bounds we’ve made within the context of aviation. Like it or not, we’ve been in a state of constant progression towards removing the human component from flying ever since a bunch of geniuses with thick-framed glasses and pockets full of Skilcraft pens invented the first complex autopilot system for commercial airliners. Nowadays, airline pilots only fly a percentage of all domestic and long-haul routes, while the computers handle the rest.
Now, you’re probably thinking- that’s all well and good, Ian, but what about the military? It’s very different from the civilian aviation.
Let’s tackle that really quickly, taking the GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb Increment II as our first example. That’s a lengthy name for such a relatively-small munition. It weighs 200 lbs or so, and measures close to 70″ in length. Small. However, packed within the bomb is an array of tracking systems that it uses to guide itself to its target, including a hybridized GPS/INS setup, which can be continually updated via Link 16 or UHF data links. It has the option to make use of a semi-active laser, millimeter-wave radar or advanced infrared homing to acquire the target itself, and can take the information it gathers to prioritize targets according to set parameters. Incredible, right? The F-22 Raptor is the next example that comes to mind. A multirole air superiority fighter that has computers so advanced that it eliminates the need for the Weapon Systems Officer (aka, the Guy In the Back), even when performing air-to-ground missions. The pièce de résistance? The RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial system, flying since 1998, which is perfectly capable of operating autonomously while monitored by a small crew in California via satellite uplink. Even smaller UAVs like the MQ-1 Predator are able to fly autonomously to an extent, as was evidenced by the Predator’s first combat sortie in 1996, when it lost its satellite link to its controllers, but still made it back to its home base in Taszar, Hungary. Heck, in June 2013, the X-47B test demonstrator landed itself aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, accomplishing in minutes what normally takes months upon months for naval aviators to master.
So, it can be done, though years from now. What does the future of unmanned close air support look like?
I’d say something similar to this freakish medieval-themed “Hunter Killer” from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Actually, I’ll be completely honest, I borrowed the idea from my friend Tim. But if you think about it, it does make sense. Compact, autonomous, unmanned aerial systems that are able to prosecute air-to-ground missions with high degrees of accuracy. As technology inevitably progresses, the costs will likely go down, and that means more advanced UAS for lower mass-production price tags. Replacing lost UAS wouldn’t be much of a financial burden, in that way. Keeping in mind the more networked future the U.S. Department of Defense wishes to work towards, providing all combatants within the battlespace with as much information as possible to give them a clearer picture of what’s going on, it’s not so far fetched to assume that such an aircraft would be able to fashion multi-dimensional views of the situation on the ground while determining how best to attack once called upon. And more importantly, there’s a substantially lower chance of the good guys losing a pilot or two on a CAS mission in a high-risk or non-permissive environment gone wrong. For this reason, it’s very possible that the A-X successor to the A-10 Warthog II, fifteen to twenty (or maybe more) years from now could potentially be unmanned.
Let’s just hope that SkyNet doesn’t take over by the time we get to that point.