Commentary: Drones, fighter jets and the future U.S. Air Force

Right before the July 4 holiday, the U.S. government released its first official report on civilian casualties of America’s long-running drone attacks on terror suspects in war zones across the globe.

A QF-4 Drone in flight as it is tracked by a missile at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

The report estimates fewer than 120 civilians have died in errant strikes since 2009 – far fewer than many independent experts and humanitarian organizations cite. “There is no doubt,” President Barack Obama noted, “that civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been.”

Yet, drones are set to become even deadlier. The U.S. Air Force, the world’s No. 1 drone operator, is developing cutting-edge technologies that look more like science fiction – and could make its warplanes far more lethal. Each pilot could ultimately control a squad of small drones, while large unmanned drones could take on more challenging missions.

On tap within the next 20 years are far-advanced big and small drones, as well as laser and other directed-energy weapons. Hypersonic munitions that travel five times the speed of sound are on the drawing boards, too. As are sophisticated computer algorithms that can tie together all these new drones and weapons and then link them to the Air Force’s manned warplanes.

But that Air Force will likely be smaller than today’s. Its fewer planes are going to be far older, on average, than the ones now flying. As the Air Force of 2036 deploys its new high-tech robots, lasers and missiles, it might also struggle to keep aging airplanes flying safely.

Yet, this mixed force of the future – new tech combined with older planes – should still add up to the world’s leading air force. The struggle to blend new and old technologies is not unique to the U.S. military: America’s biggest rivals, Russia and China, must contend with the same challenge.

Washington’s technical advancements, though, will likely prove stunning. Just as important, the U.S. Air Force now has higher funding levels than either of its potential opponents. Barring something cataclysmic, it should continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Building on a history of remote-control warplanes stretching back to World War Two, the Air Force began flying early-model Predator drones in 1996. Today, the flying branch operates hundreds of Predators, larger Global Hawks, stealth Sentinels and, reportedly, a secret radar-evading spy drone known as RQ-180.

But the drone era is just beginning. In the next two decades, the force’s new flying robots will likely be autonomous vehicles that extend operator’s sight and reach, while helping to shield them from enemy attack. The drones are designed to increase both lethality and protection for the coming fleet of manned warplanes.

Right now, Air Force drones are big, slow and vulnerable. A Predator is roughly the size of a Cessna-style private plane, and its top speed is only 175 miles an hour. That’s not hard to shoot down. The Air Force has lost Predators to enemy fire over Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. Their vulnerability is one reason they largely stick to surveillance and ground-attack missions over lightly defended territory.

The flying branch is considering two parallel approaches to shield its drones so they can accompany high-performance jet fighters into battle. Both are expected to be ready for combat well before 2036.

New drone systems

One program uses new computer algorithms to transform target drones into frontline combatants. That’s possible because the target drones – remote-controlled planes that fighter pilots use for target practice during live-fire missile exercises – are recently decommissioned frontline fighters. This program is being developed at the Air Force Research Laboratories, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The current target drone is the nimble single-engine QF-16, a pilotless F-16 –- still the Air Force’s most common manned fighter plane. Boeing has been transforming older F-16s into QF-16s for several years.

Last year, as part of the Loyal Wingman program, new advances were added on. Air Force researchers began writing computer code that, when installed in a million-dollar QF-16, allows the drone to accompany a manned plane into combat.

The pilot aboard the manned fighter, whether an F-16 or another fighter, controls the accompanying drone via radio. The drone could be ordered to fly ahead and scan with its radar, or fire missiles at targets the pilot identified with his own sensors.

The advantages are clear. A drone is expendable and can “absorb” enemy fire without risking a pilot’s life. A single drone wingman could double the number of missiles a pilot carries into combat. Add two robotic wingmen and you’ve tripled a pilot’s weapons load.

The extra munitions, and the option to sacrifice a pilotless plane or two, could prove key in intensive air battles against such high-tech foes as Russia or China. In addition, the Loyal Wingman software isn’t just for QF-16s. The researchers proposed that the code should be compatible with any fighter jet. So, in theory, the Air Force could transform any of its fighters – heavyweight F-15s or even the latest F-35 stealth planes -- into combat drones.

The Air Force has scheduled flight tests of Loyal Wingman software in 2018. The Pentagon is sounding surprisingly optimistic that the technology will work. “It is going to happen,” Bob Work, the deputy defense secretary, said in March.

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The Air Force is already testing another new drone. The Perdix initiative equips a manned jet with its own armada of tiny flying robots, which a pilot can launch on command in mid-air.

A Perdix drone is roughly the size of a soda can and weighs just one pound. It has tiny foldable wings that pop out after launch. It is designed to fit inside the flare launchers that are standard on virtually all U.S. military aircraft. Planes scatter flares to distract, and therefore protect themselves from, enemy heat-seeking missiles.

With the press of a button, the pilot on an F-15, F-16 or other fighter could deploy a swarm of up to 30 Perdix drones. The swarm of tiny, propeller-driven robots could act as airborne spies, which would extend the coverage of the launching plane’s sensors. They could also function as decoys, drawing enemy fire away from manned planes.

Perdix didn’t start as an Air Force program. It was a student project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Rapid Capabilities Office, a secretive tech group under the defense secretary’s supervision, took over its development in 2014. The Air Force has spent $20 million on testing the drone. Last summer, Air Force F-16s launched Perdixes more than 72 times during a war game in Alaska -- proving the tiny robots can safely deploy at speeds up to 430 miles an hour.

If both Perdix and Loyal Wingman pass field tests and gain sustained funding, it’s possible that fliers on all Air Force’s manned fighters in 20 years could control pilotless versions of their own planes while also launching swarms of tiny drones. The Air Force could wage war with a relatively small contingent of human pilots in the air, fighting alongside large numbers of robots.

Laser guns

All the aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, are slated to be armed with a range of more powerful weaponry. The Air Force is developing lasers and super-fast hypersonic munitions to work with today’s guns and missiles. The advanced lasers promise to react faster, target more accurately and fire more often than traditional guns.

Hypersonic missiles, flying five or six times the speed of sound, are designed to fly farther and strike harder than today’s slower rockets. They could prove almost impossible for enemy targets to dodge.

In 2013, the Air Force Research Laboratories asked defense manufacturers for a new level of laser systems that could be “integrated” into a jet’s computer platform. The Pentagon wanted an energy-efficient laser small enough to fit on a manned fighter or drone, which has limited power-generating capacity.

This laser cannon is designed to be more accurate than a gun and able to fire far more often in combat because it has no ammunition. The program builds on the U.S. military’s decades of work on directed-energy weapons. In the early 21st century, for example, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency spent $5 billion experimenting with a 747 jetliner equipped with a chemical-fueled laser.

The idea was for the so-called YAL-1 laser-attack plane to patrol near enemy borders and zap any ballistic missiles launched against U.S. forces. But then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the program in 2010. Any operational laser, he said, would need to be at least 20 times more powerful to actually be useful in combat.

The Pentagon kept working on the energy weapons, however, and today has largely switched to solid-state energy lasers that don’t require bulky and volatile chemical fuel. These lasers are rapidly improving – growing more powerful even as they shrink in size and require less and less electricity to deliver a killing strike. The Air Force projects that it will be able to equip its warplanes with these blasters sometime after 2030.

The need for speed

The flying branch could also get new missiles over the next 20 years that are a great deal faster than today’s munitions. Cruise missiles, for example, are all subsonic. They typically travel at a top speed of 500 miles an hour or so. The force’s main air-to-air weapon, the AIM-120, travels no faster than four times the speed of sound.

Faster missiles could make it harder for targets to evade them. They could also inflict more damage when they strike because of their greater kinetic energy on impact. The Air Force wants its next generation of missiles to travel at a top speed no slower than Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, which is roughly 700 miles an hour.

The Air Force has already devoted years and hundreds of millions of dollars to developing a Hypersonic Test Vehicle, a wedge-shaped, rocket-propelled vehicle that could, in theory, reach Mach 20. But the hypersonic vehicle crashed during both of its test flights in 2010 and 2011.

So the Air Force dialed back its ambitions with the X-51 “scramjet” cruise missile, designed to reach a maximum speed of Mach 5. The first three tests ended in failure, but the fourth test, on May 1, 2013, met all its objectives. “It was a very, very good day,” Charlie Brink, the research laboratories’ lead engineer for the $300-million X-51 effort, said in his usual laconic manner.

Riding high on the X-51’s successful test, Air Force leadership promptly announced a plan to design combat-ready hypersonic missiles for use after 2025. The speedy weapons could arrive just in time to help complete a key new effort/project now in development: A “teaming” concept that expands on the idea underpinning the Loyal Wingman program.

Team players in constant communication

The Air Force is planning for its new robots and fighters to be able to do what they do best: sneak and surveil. Meanwhile, it aims to use numerous older planes to do what they do best: carry large loads of munitions.

If, for example, a new F-35 and an old B-52 bomber can effortlessly pass data back and forth with each other, then they can fight as one. The lightly armed F-35 could take advantage of its stealthy airframe to penetrate enemy defenses. Once it detected enemy targets, it could send coordinates to the B-52 still flying safely inside friendly territory.

The B-52 could then launch a barrage of missiles – perhaps hypersonic ones – to destroy the targets. The F-35, meanwhile, could remain undetected because it never opened fire. Then it could more easily slip away. If the radio datalinks, transmitters and receivers and software are self-contained, they could, in theory, be compatible with any Air Force aircraft. So the flying branch could mix and match surveillers and shooters.

A radar-evading drone, for example, could spot the enemy on behalf of an older F-15 fighter. Like the B-52, it boasts an enormous payload capacity but is comparatively easy for the enemy to detect. Or a manned fighter with the Loyal Wingman software installed could control another unmanned fighter.

In that way, each aircraft does the thing it’s best at – emphasizing its strengths and mitigating its weaknesses. Besides Loyal Wingman, the Air Force is working on several teaming technologies. It’s designing a fuselage-mounted pod for the F-15 that contains special communications systems for exchanging data with F-22 stealth fighters. It’s adding new, more flexible radio gear to its 60-year-old B-52s.

The B-52s could also undergo further modification to serve as “arsenal planes” – in essence, airborne weapons magazines for stealth fighters. The arsenal plane effort, which the Pentagon announced in early 2016, is the best existing template for the service’s new teaming strategy.

Technically, however, it’s not even an Air Force program. Instead, it is part of the Rapid Capabilities Office, which is charged with finding new uses for old weapons. The Air Force is expected to possess a great many old weapons in the 2030s -- even as it keeps acquiring new drones and munitions. Congress requires it to maintain at least 1,900 fighters in its inventory.

Until last year, the Air Force was adamant that all its fighters be stealth. It planned to buy 381 stealthy F-22s and more than 1,700 F-35s. Assuming some of the jets crash – a statistical certainty – that would meet the 1,900-fighter requirement.

But in 2009, Gates curtailed F-22 production because of the high cost. Each F-22 had set U.S. taxpayers back several hundred million dollars.

The Air Force bought only 187 F-22s, nearly 200 fewer than it said it needed. Meanwhile, the F-35 encountered serious design turbulence. Its price skyrocketed to roughly $150 million a plane, while its entry into service was set back 10 years.

The twin blows of fewer F-22s and pricier, late F-35s hit the Air Force hard. “The Air Force has insufficient resources to maintain the … mandated number of fighter aircraft,” the Pentagon revealed in its annual aviation plan, released in May. Realistically, the Air Force will need to keep many older planes well into the 2030s, particularly twin-engine F-15 and single-engine F-16 fighters. The planes date from the 1980s, and the Air Force had hoped to retire them in the early 2000s.

Now expectations have changed – radically. “The Air Force will be required,” the Pentagon admitted in its aviation plan, “to upgrade and extend the service life of the F-15 and F-16.”

But in 2014, Congress killed a $2.8-billion upgrade effort for around 300 of its 900 F-16s. The Air Force is scrambling to keep its increasingly weary F-16s safe to fly.

Twenty years from now, there might still be hundreds of the fighters in the Air Force inventory. By then, their maintenance problems will likely be far worse. To say nothing of their ability to outfly and outfight newer Russian- and Chinese-made planes. For a 50-year-old F-16 to survive an aerial battle in 2036, lasers, hypersonic missiles and drone wingmen probably won’t be a luxury -- but an absolute necessity.

The good news is that Washington’s main rivals in the air contend with similar problems. The Russian and Chinese air forces are also developing stealth fighters, drones and hypersonic weapons – and they’re doing it on budgets far smaller than the U.S. Air Force’s roughly $100-billion annual allotment.

Indeed, Russia’s T-50, its first stealth fighter, has stalled at the prototype stage because of design problems. Though China’s J-20 stealth fighter is progressing more smoothly, after 10 years it has less than a dozen jets total.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force’s main problem is one of expectations. The Defense Department expects to be able to fight two major wars simultaneously – and at reasonable cost in lives and equipment. So it’s not enough for America’s air service to be bigger and more sophisticated than the Russian air force or the Chinese air force. It must be bigger and better than both, combined.

That’s comfortably the case today. Trends are also encouraging for advocates of American air power. Granted, the U.S. Air Force will probably be smaller, and its planes even older two decades from now. But new technology and tactics could help it remain the world’s best air force by far.

About the Author

David Axe is the editor of War Is Boring and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast. He has written for Danger Room, “Wired” and “Popular Science.”

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.