Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI has responded to a piece by Defence Connect and the comments about the future of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft made by Elon Musk at a US Air Force Association conference. His key point: manned fighters will be around for a while yet.
Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas airframes during the First World War to the highly manoeuvrable long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War.
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft in particular represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology – incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance airframes, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems.
Increasingly advanced, highly capable fourth, 4.5 and fifth-generation fighter aircraft that combine low observable coatings and airframes, increased aerodynamic performance, advanced sensor suites and computational power like the air dominance/air superiority specialised F-15 Eagle series, F-22 Raptor, Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 are at the pinnacle of the contemporary air power hierarchy.
Traditional fighter aircraft are not the only airborne platform to be influenced by the advent and proliferation of increasingly capable, flexible and adaptable unmanned and autonomous systems.
Recognising this, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk sparked controversy during the US Air Force's Air Warfare Symposium when he defiantly stated, "The fighter jet era has passed. Drone warfare is where the future will be. It’s not that I want the future to be – it’s just, this is what the future will be."
Speaking with US Air Force Lieutenant General John Thompson, Musk added, "The Joint Strike Fighter, there should be a competitor ... that’s a controversial subject but I don’t think it’s good to have one provider."
He added on Twitter later, "The competitor should be a drone fighter plane that’s remote-controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy. The F-35 would have no chance against it."
Responding to this, Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has entered the debate, with his piece 'Are reports of the death of manned fighters premature?', in which he breaks down his thoughts and response to Musk's comments.
"This declaration on the future of unmanned autonomous systems from one of the world’s most innovative thinkers generated a lot of debate, but it isn’t entirely correct," Dr Davis states.
The manned/unmanned combination
The central premise of Dr Davis' thesis is that while manned systems like the Royal Australian Air Force's fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will play a pivotal role in the structure, capability and application of airpower for the nation, the costs associated with acquiring and training pilots will force a reorientation for Australia.
He explains this, saying, "Rather than crewed aircraft being replaced completely by unmanned systems, we’ll see a partnership of piloted and autonomous systems.
"The unmanned aircraft will have various levels of trusted autonomy depending on the operational and tactical circumstances they operate in. For the Royal Australian Air Force, getting this manned–unmanned teaming right is vital if we’re to sustain our operational effectiveness in the face of growing threats."
For Dr Davis, Australia stands at the forefront of this manned–unmanned teaming solution, with the development of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System (BATS) expected to play a pivotal role in the development of Australia's future airpower capability.
"It’s opportune that Boeing is working on linking manned and unmanned aircraft with the loyal wingman ‘Airpower Teaming System’. The loyal wingman drone offers the possibility of a low-cost, long-range, light-strike platform that can operate alongside the F-35A, the Super Hornets and the Growler electronic warfare aircraft. It would support larger enablers such as the E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft," he says.
As Dr Davis articulates, it is envisaged that the lessons learned throughout the BATS program and the RAAF's introduction will also serve to inform future force structure, acquisition, industry development and operational doctrine not only for Australia but for allies, including the US.
This becomes particularly important as the range and payload limitations of platforms like the F-35 are further limited and costly to deploy and operate in heavily defended and contested operating environments – this also opens the avenue for developing additional variants to support Australia's airpower future.
"Boeing could also develop the MQ-25 Stingray so that it could refuel both the F-35A and loyal wingman. At the moment, the MQ-25 can only refuel navy and marine corps F-35Cs and F-35Bs, so a larger, land-based version is needed to allow longer-range stealthy operations by RAAF F-35As. That should be of great interest to the RAAF," Dr Davis says.
"The RAAF’s KC-30 MRTT tankers paint a massive signature on Chinese radars watching from the South China Sea and can’t operate in contested airspace. That limits the F-35A’s utility for long-range air operations."
These points figure into the growing concerns raised by Dr Davis and his colleague, Marcus Hellyer, in recent months regarding Australia's growing long-range strike capability gap, across both the air and sea domains, which is leaving the nation startlingly exposed.
An opportunity to address Australia's long-range strike gap
While the acquisition of the Super Hornets to fill the capability gap left by the retirement of the F-111 in 2010 has remained a contentious decision for many within Australia's strategic policy community, the growing gap in light of rapidly evolving regional dynamics presents another opportunity for Australia.
"The problem, as I’ve noted before, and as my ASPI colleague Marcus Hellyer has explored, is a lack of range and payload in the RAAF’s strike and air combat platforms. RAAF aircraft can project power at long range, but only with extensive tanker support in uncontested airspace, or by using another nation’s bases. Neither of those options may be available in a conflict," Dr Davis articulates.
He sees opportunity for Australia's defence industry and the RAAF to be at the cutting edge of the manned–unmanned capability combination, with the development of a larger, strike orientated variant of the BATS concept.
"The loyal wingman could transform Australia’s defence industry and possibly the Australian Defence Force. It should be seen as the first of a family of systems to address critical defence needs," Dr Davis explains.
"This platform could be developed into new designs with greater size, performance and payload, perhaps midway between the F-111C and a larger bomber.
"With China working on a ‘J/H-XX’ ‘regional bomber’, a scaled-up loyal wingman could be an answer not only for the RAAF’s long-range strike gap, but also to fill similar gaps in the US’s and other regional partners’ air forces, which have for too long emphasised tactical platforms rather than long-range strategic airpower."
Either way, it is evident that manned fighter aircraft will remain a critical component in the RAAF's arsenal well into the future. How we utilise the platforms and their capabilities in conjunction with unmanned and semi-autonomous systems will dictate the level of tactical and strategic advantage Australia enjoys into the 2030s and beyond.
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia’s doorstep – combined with similar concerns developing among allies, including the US, UK and, more broadly, the European Union – raises questions about the RAAF’s plans to adequately defend Australia’s airspace against increasingly capable threats.
Accordingly, is it time for Australia to be involved with the development and introduction of a highly capable, high-speed, low-observable, air superiority-focused platform to complement the low-end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces?
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation’s immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid-2030s.