Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mythbuster: "Future" Tech

"PEW PEW PEW!"
Captain Buster Junior cleared his throat and spoke loudly and clearly into his helmet microphone.

"Computer...  Initiate air combat protocol.  Arm all missiles, activate all electronic warfare modules, and charge up the directed energy weapon."

His order was confirmed by the CF/A-55E's onboard artificial intelligence.  "Affirmative.  Sensors confirm two hostile bogeys coming in from the east.  Radar jamming initiated.  Missiles armed.  Fusion cells charged to ninety-eight percent."

"Great."  Captain Buster Junior answered.  "Transmit the usual multi-language message stating that they have violated Canadian airspace and..."

"CAPTAIN!  Missile launch detected!"

The pilot reflexively banked his aircraft into a defensive maneuver and barked back at his aircraft.  "CRAP!  Okay, target that missile with the DEW turret and prepare to fire CUDA missiles!"  

"Acknowledged.  Directed Energy Weapon locked on.  Do you wish to fire?"

"YES!"

Captain Buster Junior heard a tell-tale "BOOM!"  His joy was short lived as he saw two crimson beams of light flash by his aircraft.  That was too close.  He turned his head, and his helmet mounted display projected a holographic image of the two enemy aircraft directly onto his retinas.  It only took a moment for the green square surrounding them both to turn into a red circle, indicating missile lock.  

"FIRE MISSILES!"  

It only took an instant for four missiles to eject out of his aircraft's weapon bay and streak towards their target at hypersonic speed.  At that speed, they were too fast to be targeted by the enemy aircraft's own directed energy weapon.  Two missiles slammed into one, obliterating the aircraft instantly thanks to their precision and kinetic energy.  

Only one missile hit the other aircraft; damaging it, but not destroying it.  As it turned to limp home, Captain Buster Junior cracked a sinister smile as he turned his own aircraft to give chase.  He was finally able to make out his enemy's distinct lack of cockpit.  This was not a manned fighter, but a drone!

"Computer...  Target enemy UCAV...  See if you can hack its systems and upload an E-BOLA virus.  That'll give the bad guys a nice surprise when it gets home!"

"Affirmative, Captain."

F-35 model with proposed "CUDA" missiles.
 When one looks at some of the concepts being developed now, it seems very clear that the future of aerial warfare will be quite different from what we see today.  Innovations in directed energy weapons (DEW), smart bombs, and the like lead us to believe that air combat two decades from now will look more like science fiction.  This is understandable.  After all, twenty years time is all that separates the Me 262 and and the SR-71.

Surely, twenty years time is all that separates us from "the next big thing" in military aviation as well.

From this...
To this in twenty years.

The last twenty years has seen an explosion in consumer technology.  It is only natural to assume that military technology has and will make similar advances.  This is not necessarily the case, however.  Whereas consumer technology is very much driven by factors such as lifestyle changes, fashion, and prestige, military technology is driven more by perceived necessity and budget pressures.  This makes military technology development much more risk averse.

What this means is that companies like Apple and Samsung need to constantly innovate in order to maintain market share in a world filled with fickle customers.  Faster processors, more vibrant screens; all wrapped up in thinner bodies.  Meanwhile, most military technology hits the point of "good enough".  A 500 pound smart bomb does not become more effective with the addition of a high-definition screen or a built-in fingerprint scanner.

From this (Vietnam era M-16)...

To this.  (Modern M4)
Instead, military weapon advancements tend to be more "evolutionary" than revolutionary.  The modern-day M4 carbine is near identical to the M-16 battle rifle first used in Vietnam over 40 years ago.  Sure, there are plenty of improvements "under the skin" resulting in better accuracy and reliability, but the rifle is still gas-operated, rotating bolt assault rifle that fires 5.56mm rounds.  Attempts to replace it with something more radical have so far been unfruitful.  Even suggestions to change the caliber have been shot down.

Why?

Because for all its weaknesses, the M4 is still very much a "good enough" weapon.  It is lightweight (much lighter than the pre-Vietnam M14), accurate (less accurate than the M14, however), cheap to produce, and easy to maintain.  Other assault rifles may be superior in many ways, but not superior enough to warrant replacing the half-million M4s already in service with the U.S. Army.

Can something as simple as a battle rifle cannot be used as an analogy to high-end jet fighters?  The last twenty years would seem to indicate it can.

F-22 Raptor
Thirty years ago, the ATF (Advanced Tactical Fighter) program produced a fighter that was originally intended to replace the F-15 Eagle as the USAF's predominant air-superiority fighter.  That fighter, the F-22 Raptor was certainly superior to the F-15C in almost every respect, but escalating costs and the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in Raptor production being curtailed at 187 instead of the planned 750.  

To this day, the F-22 is still a fighter without a real purpose.  It only recently made its combat debut, an action that did little to showcase its air-superiority talents.

Meanwhile, the F-15, the very aircraft the Raptor was meant to replace, continues production.  A slew of upgrades and a strike variant will keep the production line running until 2018, a full six years after the last F-22 was delivered.

B-2 Spirit
The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber has met a similar fate.  Originally meant to replace the geriatric B-52 Stratofortress, 132 B-2s were planned to be built.   Like the F-22, escalating costs and changing times led to many questioning the need for such a beast.  In the end, only 21 examples were built, resulting in the aircraft's infamous unit cost.

It seems doubtful that the B-2 will outlive the 50's era B-52, which is planned to keep flying until 2044.

At least the USAF got some of the aircraft it clamored for.  The USN was not so lucky...  Or was it?

A-12 Avenger II
The planned replacement for the venerable A-6 Intruder was ambitious if nothing else.  The A-12 Avenger II was meant to bring stealth capability to the American carrier fleet.  The A-12 had much in common with the USAF's B-2; a stealthy, flying wing shape, an internal bomb bay, an troubled development, and an astronomical price.

Eventually, the A-12 was cancelled when it was found that it would be too heavy to operate from a carrier.  Even if it could, the aircraft would have been too expensive to fly anyway.

Artist concept of the NATF
The proposed NATF intended to replace the F-14 Tomcat never even left the drawing board.  Even plans to base it heavily on the F-22 in order to save costs were not enough to save it.

Instead of the A-12 and NATF, the USN was provided with the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as a sort of "consolation prize".  While not nearly as glamorous, the Super Hornet has made for a competent and cost effective workhorse.

Now, with delays and cost overruns plaguing introduction of the F-35C, the USN is faced with the difficult decision of what to do as it retires its aging legacy F/A-18 Hornet fleet.  Does it simply wait, does it expand and upgrade its Super Hornet fleet, or does it dive headlong into UCAV's like the X-47B?

F-35A Lightning II
Whatever the end decision is, the result will likely have more to do with budgets than anything else.  The biggest enemy of most militaries face right now is budget cuts.  It is hard to imagine military purchasers splurging on expensive and unproven technology when they cannot even afford to maintain their current capability.  

Despite concerns about "emerging threats" and the like, modern fighters are still more than a match for current threats.  Western airpower, as it currently stands, is still "good enough" to handle any potential threat.  Even if there are concerns about a diminishing technological advantage, the truth is that the USAF alone enjoys a distinct numerical and technological advantage over the Russian and Chinese air forces.

Perhaps the current predicament will lead to a new sort of benchmark for future weapon systems.  Instead of focusing strictly on the Cold War mentality of "superiority at all costs", perhaps future weapon systems will focus more on cost effectiveness.

What we were promised:  A SR-71 Blackbird replacement concept.


What we got:  The MQ-9 Reaper UCAV
Indeed, it is through cost effectiveness that UCAV's like the MQ-9 Reaper have become quite prevalent over the last few years.  It is far cheaper to patrol an area with a slow, propellor driven drone than it is a supersonic multirole fighter.

Oddly enough, if you were to pick up a book on "Future Aircraft" twenty years ago, you would not see a single aircraft resembling the modest drones used over Iraq and Afghanistan.  Instead, you would have seen streamlined flights of fancy said to fly at hypersonic speeds.

The truth is, while fantastic new technologies may grab the magazine covers, the future usually ends up being far more mundane.

At least we know that UAVs will probably replace manned fighters in the near future...  Right?

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