by Bikram Vohra
With each passing year the concept of aerial combat changes and the old dogfight in the sky is no longer central to aerial supremacy. The romantic ‘who’ll come a hunting a Hienkel’s scenarios are gone. Spitfires and Stukas and Fokkers in aerial combat and even their swifter and later date facsimiles are on the lip of being passe. Fighters are now more missile delivery systems and their speed and range are of the essence.
With the Americans working on the next generation air dominance fighter with 2030 slated as its scheduled arrival and the Germans working with Spain and France on the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) the angle of attack for the fighter jet category has changed dramatically.
In fact in danger of becoming obsolete are the fourth and fifth generation fleets that include Boeing’s F/A-18s, the Eurofighter
Typhoon and Sweden’s Saab’s JAS 39 Gripen. Though Chicago-based Boeing, the Pentagon’s No. 2 supplier by sales and the top U.S. exporter, says it sees big opportunities for its F-15 and F/A-18 fighters even into the future.
The Russians moved into the global arena in the past decade and fought hard to lose the poor PR image of dumpy and dangerous aircraft. While Russian aerodynamism has never been in question there had been doubts expressed over its limited success with power plant technology. But by advocating a blend of western knowhow and manufacture, the Russian aero-industry declared itself open to co-operative ventures and brought to the table its own expertise.
The Russians are keen to market their Sukhoi range especially since it comes with an advanced trainer. Exports of Su-27 fighters enabled Russia to preserve its operational air force. This aircraft, considered the most capable fighter aircraft in its class, may well point the way to a fifth generation of air fighters. The Su-27 is a dogfighter’s dream. It has dazzled pilots with its ability to attack in the middle of screaming dives and ascents, setting 36 world records. Compared to the Rafale the Su 27 with its many variants including the Su37 Su-37 multirole, all-weather fighter kicks in at 45-$60 million. It is also seen as the Russian answer to the US F22 which rings the till at $150 million per aircraft. The F16 Block 70 offers a 50% longer lifespan than its predecessors which in 1998 were going at $14 million a jet. Today the Block 70 recently purchased by Bahrain would clock in at $130 million. The Eurofighter Typhoon homes in at $90 million but it would rise in cost once the armament was selected. The Rafale was sold to India for just over $200 million.
But the markets for these aircraft are not prime and will probably stock the air forces of the third world as the sixth generation
fighter if one can call it that will combine speed, stealth and avionics of a level that will make it a command post in the sky. Among the revolutionary capabilities these aircraft will have is the use of artificial intelligence to maneouvre and position ground forces while getting a 3D concept of the enemy strengths and deployments. This versatility will give these planes the power to operate as an integral element in formation with attack and surveillance drones known as ‘remote carriers’.
Which brings one to the magic word: drones. If future advanced versions of unmanned flying systems controlled from a distance are able to possess a competitive performance envelope, have stealth abilities, shoot lasers, carry armament and in variable sizes actually access the enemy strongholds where is the need for manned flights. One recalls the 2019 mass attack by drones in western Syria, which were easily knocked off or jammed by Russian defence systems but issued warning that drone swarms as they are being referred to could penetrate any defence ring and become a state of the art delivery vehicle for all sorts of weaponry.
Drones in peacetime can pollute, attack, destroy specific targets, assassinate, spy, observe troop movements in real time and be high value aerial Trojan horses, all these activities no longer in the realm of sci-fi but very possible.
Ironically,while saving lives drones can also save millions in training pilots who can then revise their talents to long distance
‘video game’ consoles and make a mockery of current fighter fleets.
They can also totally reduce the investment in support systems, runways, carriers and high security air fields since they can take off from back gardens or be catapulted into the air.
As drone development moves at breakneck speed courtesy technology the sky is literally the limit.
If you can buy your kid that toy chopper that hovers over the neighbour’s hedge and invades their privacy for $50 and takes pictures and can even carry a small payload if you want to be obnoxious how far away the real McCoy is in military terms. The toys of today are indeed the terrors of tomorrow.
As they proliferate and they will, drones will impact on war zones and turn them into offices. You go to work on an 8 hour shift, enter a special ops room, sit in front of screens, kill, maim, destroy in your Playstation upgrade and then have a tuna sandwich and go home for dinner: job done, see you tomorrow.
Tomorrow is already here.