To meet the Chinese challenge, the US Air Force wants to bet massively on combat drones

During the Cold War, the armies of NATO, in particular the American armies, undertook to contain the land numerical superiority of the Soviet forces and the Warsaw Pact, by equipping themselves with unparalleled air power, capable of seizing air superiority over the battlefield, and to compensate for the deficiencies of Western ground forces. This is how the F-4 Phantom II, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and other A-10 Warthog evolved alongside the European Tornado, Jaguar, Harrier and Mirage to gain the upper hand over the Mig-21 , Mig-23, Mig-25 and the Soviet Su-22, thanks to their technology but also to their number, and this until the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. Throughout the post-Cold War period, this same American and Western air power was the spearhead of Western supremacy on the planet, to the point that the dependence of all Western armed forces on air power was further increased. . At the same time, however, the significant reduction in the risk of high-intensity conflict, and the constant increase in the costs of acquiring and operating combat aircraft, led to a significant reduction in the formats of air forces, in Europe as well as across the Atlantic.

In fact, today, the US Air Force's fighter fleet, with just over 2000 F15, F16, F22 and A10 fighters, is only half of what it was in the mid-80s. 600. Similarly, in Europe, the French fighter fleet has gone from over 1985 combat aircraft in 250 to 800 today, and from over 220 aircraft to less than 2000 for the German fighter fleet, whereas in the same time, the unit price of a Mirage 16 or an F15 had gone from $35m ($2022m 60) to more than $35m, and that aircraft like the F-15A, the F-80EX , the Rafale or the Typhoon, greatly exceed $6000m for purchase. Insofar as these new aircraft have largely gained in capacity, scalability and versatility over the years, and the Russian fighter fleet has for its part been reduced from 1200 to XNUMX combat aircraft, even though its ground forces have also experienced very severe format reductions (not to mention the war in Ukraine), the balance has been preserved in this area in the European theatre. On the other hand, the situation is quite different with regard to China.

With a unit price of more than $80 million, the F-35A costs 2,5 times more than the F-16 of 1980 once inflation is compensated, representing a perfect illustration of Augustine's law

Indeed, unlike Moscow, Beijing can rely on a very dynamic economy, and above all on technological capacities which now have nothing to envy of Westerners, including Americans. In addition, the People's Liberation Army has been able to integrate Western doctrines in terms of air power, unlike the Russian armies which remain largely imprinted with their Soviet heritage, leading them to acquire new high-performance aircraft such as the single-engine fighter J-10C, the J-11B air superiority fighter and the J-16 general-purpose fighter, as well as 5th generation aircraft such as the J-20 and the J-35, and at the same time developing support capabilities with the KJ-500 and KJ-600 aerial surveillance aircraft, the Y-20U aerial refueling aircraft and the Y-8 intelligence aircraft, and that many other advanced programs are underway in the country, including in the field combat drones. And for Secretary of the United States Air Force Frank Kendall, the only alternative to meet the Chinese challenge in terms of air warfare is based on the massive use of combat drones to compensate for the growing mass of Beijing's air forces.

For the highest civilian official in the US Air Force, the equation is perfectly clear: while the F-15EX and the F-35A already cost well over $80m to buy, the future 6th generation NGAD due to arrive before the end of the decade will cost well over $200m, and that the B-21 Raider stealth strategic bomber will cost several hundred million $ per unit, the US Air Force will not have the budgetary capacity to increase its format beyond its current level, and it is even likely that this will be reduced further in the years to come in the face of such expenditure. At the same time, the Chinese air forces will continue to modernize, and to integrate new squadrons of modern aircraft, with the very probable possibility that in the long term, the air forces of the two countries will compensate each other in terms of volume and performance and technology.

the XQ-58A is one of the drones tested within the Skyborg program to escort American combat aircraft

In fact, to gain the upper hand over the Chinese air forces in the event of a confrontation in the Pacific, the US Air Force will have to quickly equip itself with new economic air vectors likely to increase its operational critical mass. To do this, Franck Kendall believes that the development of combat drones, whether airborne drones as for the Remote Carrier concept, or heavier drones according to the Loyal Wingman concept, must now represent a priority for the 'US Air Force, especially since more than 400 combat aircraft must be withdrawn from service within the US Air Force in the next 5 years.

Replacing light fighters, such as the F-16 or the Mirage 2000, with combat drones in order to increase the mass of air forces, is an area already favored by several air forces around the world. Thus, within the framework of the SCAF program bringing together France, Germany and Spain, but also in the Tempest program bringing together Great Britain, Italy and Sweden, the development of Remote Carrier type combat drones has been identified as one of the main pillars of the two programs, while the NGF and the Tempest are both destined to become relatively heavy combat aircraft. Although shrouded in significant secrecy, it is more than likely that the development of the US Air Force's Next Generation Air Dominance, intended to replace the American F-22s by the end of the decade, also includes remote combat drones intended to extend the engagement, detection and communication capabilities of the new device, as it is likely that the successor to the Super Hornet under development for the US Navy within the F / A- XX is based on the same paradigms.

NGAD will cost hundreds of millions of dollars according to Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall

Other countries, such as Russia with the Okhtonik B, or Australia with the Loyal Wingman, plan to acquire long-range stealth combat drones capable of evolving alongside manned combat aircraft, while being implemented from conventional tracks. For the Russian air forces, the Okhtonik B has been considered for several years as the designated replacement for the Mig-29 but also for the Su-25, both for land and naval air missions, which explains the low interest of the air forces. and the Russian Navy for the Mig-35 and even for the Su-75 Checkmate. China, for its part, seems engaged in the development of several stealth combat drones, after presenting the GJ-11 as operational in 2019. According to some rumors, it seems as such that the highly anticipated CH-7 stealth combat drone could be presented in flight during the 2022 Zhuhai show.

In the end, the strategy presented by Frank Kendall is reminiscent of the one that the US Navy has been trying to promote for several years, namely to acquire a large fleet of autonomous vectors to compensate for the impossibility of increasing volume the number of manned aircraft and ships. But, as with the US Navy, this approach suffers from several weaknesses. First, as the crisis between Washington and Tehran showed in 2018 after Iranian air defense shot down an MQ-4C drone, the use of drones dangerously lowers the engagement thresholds on both sides of potential belligerents, with an increased risk of conflict escalation, as shown by a study by the Rand Corporation in 2020. Above all, there is nothing to suggest that the advantage which the US Air Force hopes to gain is unilateral, and that China will not also develop a large fleet of combat drones to increase its operational mass.

French, German and Spanish are developing Remote Carrier drones as part of the SCAF program

Moreover, and as was already the case previously, Frank Kendall seems to refuse to consider the advances made by Will Roper when he presided over the acquisitions of the US Air Force within the previous administration. According to the latter, it was possible to increase the mass of the US Air Force by taking the opposite Augustine's Law, named after the former director of Lockheed Martin Norman Augustine in the 70s who predicted that the irremediable increase in the unit price of combat aircraft would lead to a drastic reduction in the volumes of air forces. According to Will Roper, by breaking with the demands for versatility and scalability that today constitute the main cause of the rise in the price of fighter jets, it would be possible to design high-performance and economical combat aircraft, meeting the requirements of the moment, in a sustainable model over time for the air forces and public finances. And the latter to propose to develop, within the framework of the NGAD program, a light single-engine combat aircraft worthy successor to the F-16, precisely to train the mass essential to the US Air Force to face China, while reducing the volume of orders for the very expensive F-35A.

Because the question goes far beyond what concerns the US Air Force and its few rare allies capable of financing air forces composed of aircraft as expensive as the F-35A or the F-15EX, not to mention future NGADs. . Indeed, whether in the Pacific theater as in Europe or the Middle East, many countries are now forced to turn to the F-16 Block 70, which is certainly efficient but has reached the end of its evolution capabilities. , to acquire an efficient and sufficiently large fighter fleet to be significant, the other aircraft being out of budgetary reach. From this point of view, the axis chosen both by the United States with the NGAD and the F/A-XX, as well as by the Europeans with the SCAF and the Tempest, is likely to put in difficulty many allied air forces incapable of to acquire affordable and yet essential piloted devices to implement the famous drones supposed to bring the necessary critical mass, both in the face of China and Russia. Perhaps it would be necessary, for the United States as for the Europeans, to consider that their greatest operational asset is based on their ability to form alliances, and not on the technologies and the means potentially involved. This is probably one of the most important lessons of the war in Ukraine, yet so far largely ignored by Western military planners…

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