Warplanes: The Decade Of Disaster


September 14, 2011: The last decade has revolutionized air warfare, and air forces. This revolution was brought about by two technologies (smart bombs and UAVs) that have been around for decades but, over a decade ago, became reliable and capable enough to have a decisive effect on warfare. Now UAVs armed with smart bombs are poised to replace manned aircraft. Moreover, the proliferation of GPS guided weapons and short range guided missiles have greatly reduced the need for ground strikes by manned or unmanned aircraft. Since World War II, air forces have demanded, and obtained, a disproportionate share of military budgets. No more.

It gets worse. While military aircraft were first developed for reconnaissance, it quickly became obvious that control of the air was a valuable goal. But now air-to-air combat with manned aircraft is also threatened. Because there has been so little air-to-air combat in the last few decades, this aspect is not having as much impact on how air forces operate. Not yet.

Underlying all of this is the appearance of so many cheaper, reliable, precision weapons in the last decade. This has changed tactics on the ground. While the air force doesn’t like to dwell on this, it’s the war on the ground that is decisive, not what’s going on in the air. This proliferation of precision has also changed the way smart bombs were designed. With the ability to put a weapon within a meter of the aiming point (using laser guidance) or 5-10 meters (using GPS), smaller is now better, at least in urban areas where there are a lot of civilians about, troops have changed the way they fight. There is more movement in urban warfare because of all this precision firepower, and fewer friendly fire casualties from bombs and artillery. But it's not just the air force and their smart bombs that have brought this on. The army had precision missiles on the ground long before JDAM came along. Now the army has more of them. Thus, over the last five years, there has been a competition between the army and air force to develop smaller, cheaper and more precise, missiles and bombs.

A decade ago, there were several precision weapons to choose from, but all were very expensive. Basically, if you add high precision to a bomb or missile, you increase its cost by $25-50,000. One of the first, widely successful precision weapons to show up was the 22.8 kg (fifty pound) TOW anti-tank missile. It has a 6.8 kg (13 pound) warhead, and, when wars broke out, was mainly used for taking out rooms in buildings where enemy gunmen were hiding. It was a TOW that got Saddam Hussein's two sons seven years ago. Every mech infantry unit has plenty of TOW missiles, and very few enemy tanks to use them on.

Although the air force had smart (GPS guided) bombs in 2001, these came in only two sizes; half ton and one ton. This was too much blast for urban fighting. The need for less firepower compelled the air force to quickly modify its GPS guidance kit to fit on a 227 kg (500 pound) bomb. But that's still 127 kg (280 pounds) of explosives. The troops wanted precision and less bang. In response, the air force (actually, the navy) developed a 500 pound bomb with all but 13.6 kg (30 pounds) of the explosives removed. All these JDAM smart bombs cost less than $30,000 each.

Then there's a completely new smart bomb design, the 114 kg (250 pounds) SDB (small diameter bomb). This weapon has a shape that's more missile than  bomb (1.78 meters/70 inches long, 190 millimeters in diameter), with the guidance system built in. The smaller blast from the SDB is still pretty substantial (23.2 kg/51 pounds of explosives).

Since the 1990s, a more portable ground combat missile, and just as accurate as TOW, came along in the form of the 11.8 kg (26 pounds) Javelin, with its 4.1 kg (nine pounds) warhead. These two missiles are expensive, with TOW costing $25,000 each, and Javelin $75,000.

For a smaller bang, there's the AT4 rocket launcher, and its 1.8 kg (four pounds) warhead. It's not laser guided, and you have to be pretty close to use it. But at the normal ranges it’s used (a hundred meters or so), it's very accurate, and it's cheap ($2,700). The LAW is similar, smaller (2.2 pound warhead) and cheaper ($2,000).

Helicopters and UAVs use Hellfire missiles, which weigh 48.6 kg (107 pounds), and have a 9.1 kg (20 pounds) warhead. A little less than half of a missile warhead is explosives. Hellfire is laser guided, and good for taking out vehicles full of bad guys. Hellfire costs $50,000 each. Even cheaper ($25,000 each), and smaller, are the new, laser guided 70mm rockets. There weigh 11.4 kg (25 pounds) and have a 2.7 kg (six pounds) warhead. The 70mm rocket has a range of about six kilometers. There are even smaller guided missiles now available.

The army also has 155mm GPS guided 155mm shells (Excalibur). Each 45.5 kg (100 pounds) shell has about 9.1 kg (20 pounds) of explosives. This makes for a bigger bang than Hellfire or Tow, but much less than smart bombs. There's also a 227mm MLRS GPS rocket. But this carries over 68 kg (150 pounds) of explosives. About half the bang of a 500 pound JDAM. The GPS guided 155mm shell and MLRS rocket each cost over $50,000 each. The big advantage of these GPS artillery munitions is that they are available to the troops 24/7, and the need for fewer rounds per mission means there are fewer problems with running out, or low, on supplies.

Price is not really a factor when it comes to these weapons. The whole point of smart (much more accurate) munitions is to reduce the number of explosions, and to only blow up what needs to be destroyed. The proliferation of rockets, smart bombs and missiles, from those with a 455 gr (a pound) of explosives (LAW) to 500 pound bombs (with 127 kg/280 pounds), gives troops a lot of flexibility on the battlefield. This makes American troops much more lethal, and greatly reduces friendly, and civilian, casualties.

It was bad enough that all those army GPS rockets and shells, as well as more missiles, were taking work away from the air force. The U.S. Army was also rebuilding its helicopter heavy air force, using UAVs. The army had been banned from using manned and armed fixed wing aircraft for over half a century. All the new UAVs have changed this.

Two years ago, the army received the first production models of its Sky Warrior MQ-1C UAVs, but prototypes were already in Iraq for testing. The MQ-1Cs cost $8 million each, but this will go down to $6 million as more are manufactured.

The MQ-1Cs are slightly larger Predators, and are being used for missions formerly performed by Shadow 200, and other large army UAVs. The big difference is that Sky Warrior can carry weapons (like Hellfire missiles.) Thus the army is now using missile firing, fixed wing combat aircraft, something it has not been able to do for many decades (since the U.S. Air Force was created out of the old U.S. Army Air Force in the late 1940s). The air force has accepted, for the moment, that unmanned aircraft are not the sole preserve of the air force, and the army is taking that and building a new air force for itself.

The air force is not happy about the army having a large force of armed UAVs. Many air force generals believe the army should not have the MQ-1C, or at least not use them with weapons. That has already caused some spats in the Pentagon over the issue, but so far the army has prevailed.

The army argument is that these larger UAVs work better for them if they are under the direct control of combat brigades. The air force sees that as inefficient, and would prefer to have one large pool of larger UAVs, that could be deployed as needed. This difference of opinion reflects basic differences in how the army and air force deploy and use their combat forces. The army has found that a critical factor in battlefield success is teamwork among members of a unit, and subordinate units in a brigade. While the air force accepts this as a critical performance issue for their aircraft squadrons, they deem it irrelevant for army use of UAVs. Seeing army MQ-1Cs doing visual and electronic reconnaissance and firing missiles at ground targets, the air force sees itself losing control of missions it has dominated since its founding in 1948.

The army has been quietly building its new "army air force" for a while now. In the 1980s the army obtained a Predator predecessor, the Gnat-750. This evolved into the I-Gnat (which has been in use since 1989). Then came I-Gnat ER and Sky Warrior Alpha. These last two look like a Predator or Sky Warrior, but are not. In terms of design and capabilities, they are cousins.

 The MQ-1C Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 137 kg (300 pounds) of sensors internally, and up to 227 kg (500 pounds) of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Sky Warrior has a wingspan 18 meters (56 feet) and is 9 meters (28 feet long). The Sky Warrior can land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator), or a dozen smaller 70mm guided missiles. The original MQ-1 Predator is a one ton aircraft that is only slightly smaller. It has two hard points, which usually carry one Hellfire each. Max speed of the Predator is 215 kilometers an hour, max cruising speed is 160 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 8,400 meters (25,000 feet). Typical sorties are 12-20 hours each.   A Sky Warrior company has 115 troops, 12 Sky Warrior UAVs and five ground stations. The army plans to equip each combat brigade with a Sky Warrior company. This is the equivalent of giving each army a brigade of air force reconnaissance/light attack aircraft. That would never happen, which is why the army will fight to keep its larger UAVs.

Meanwhile, the navy has taken the lead in developing larger, jet propelled UAVs like the 15 ton, X-47B. This UAV uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15. The X-47B can carry two tons of bombs or missiles and maneuver like a jet fighter. The X-47B is fast and agile enough to carry out air-to-air missions. With the right software, it can do this autonomously (without human intervention). This is being worked on, and the navy already has perfected the software that enables a UAV to land on aircraft carriers.

The coming decade will see more and more UAVs replacing manned aircraft. Thus after only a century in action, manned combat aircraft are on their way out.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close