How Ukraine Bleed Putin’s Nose and Rewrote the Future of Air Power Business

“Unlike anything I’ve experienced in the past,” says Sqn Ldr Campbell. “The possibility of showing up and joining a Norwegian, Dutch, Belgian or Polish ship, possibly in the future, four-ship [formation] F-35s. Making your foreign aid transparent is how we must increase our combat mass.

This is where the West sees the future of air power: in the face of non-NATO attempts to match Western fighter jet technology, different nations will pool their combat power, fitting seamlessly together. next to others when needed.

To illustrate the point, Sqn Ldr Campbell mentions that in February he commanded a detachment of F-35s that went to Estonia “to show off their capabilities and show their solidarity with NATO”.

Blend technology and the human touch

Back in Norfolk, the Flatman squadron is the British F-35B operational conversion unit. It takes trained pilots from elsewhere in the armed forces and novices from the RAF Valley fighter flying school, and trains them to fly and fight – helping them become familiar with the lifting fan Harrier style of the F-35B and the ability to hover above the ground.

It relies on a combination of technology and human contact. Continued investment in human fighter pilots and up-to-date jet aircraft points to the future of air combat: well-trained aircrew and technologically advanced equipment. Drones, it seems, have yet to fully take over.

The F-35s they fly are the epitome of overmatch – the concept of overwhelming enemies through technological superiority. Overmatch even extends to the very skin of the F-35, designed to make the aircraft much less visible on radar than its contemporaries.

Officially, the counter-radar technology of the F-35’s exterior surface coating is described as “poorly observable”. The designers learned of an incident over Serbia in 1999 involving an F-117 Nighthawk, when the $40m (£32.8m) jet was shot down. Now, the highly classified and low-observable coating of the modern jet is designed so that radar waves travel over and along it in a carefully controlled manner rather than reflecting back towards a hostile receiver.

This low observability has a price: the maintenance of the special coating requires a lot of highly skilled craftsmen and above all a lot of time.

Removing some external access panels on the F-35, for example, means breaking up the smooth contours of the anti-radar coating. The reapplication process can take up to two days as the special blend of materials hardens and hardens completely.

Neil “Shiner” Wright, BAE Systems Ground Training Manager at RAF Marham, is responsible for training military and civilian personnel in the maintenance of the aircraft.

Holding a wooden model of an outer panel, in cross-section to show how repairs are made to the low-visibility liner, he says the design owes much to the F-22 – America’s previous stealth fighter still flying today. today.

“The weak observable is a new technology for the UK,” says Gary Jones, a BAE contractor. Jets from bygone eras, such as the Gloster Javelin, Harrier, and even the Eurofighter Typhoon, feature metal planes covered in paint. Now, the technological advantage required by the Western way of aerial warfare comes at a high price in time, money and skill.

In Jones’ words, F-35 maintenance is less about “hack and bashing” and has more in common with “art and craft”. Shiner jokes that trainees “who build model airplanes and paint them are better than old mechanics like me.”

The low-visibility coating is so critical that ALIS, the comprehensive computer system used to track F-35 maintenance, has a comprehensive routine for dealing with bumps. Maintainers should trace damaged areas on an acetate sheet and scan it into the computer system. Complex algorithms determine if the damage is repairable and decide whether it can be repaired or replaced.

Steve Brown, head of UK training at BAE, observes that Britain maintains a ‘pay to be different’ stance with the F-35, having established its own sovereign training centre.

While there are undoubtedly good foreign policy reasons for not relying on the US-approved F-35 repair and overhaul facility in Italy, commercial reasons loom large: seven other European countries buy F-35s. All of their maintainers will need training and their planes will eventually need to be overhauled as well. Overmatch isn’t just a way to win wars, it’s a way to do business.

A new generation of pilots

State-of-the-art western air combat relies on humans commanding extremely powerful machines, equipped with sensors and a secure network.

Stew Campbell’s boss, Wing Commander David Tait, observes that F-35 pilots are “more of a systems manager than a pilot” in many ways, with the Air Force looking for people who have ” the ability to absorb the huge amount of information”. generated by the jet and the other radars and tactical systems with which it communicates.

“To be honest with you, it’s almost like playing a musical instrument,” says the commander of 617 Sqn. The comparison may be fanciful, but the ability to confidently manage multiple simultaneous sources of information points to the potential future of air combat in light of the Ukrainian war experience.

Dr David Jordan of the Freeman Air and Space Institute at King’s College London agrees that the F-35 and its capabilities will dictate the future of air combat, at least in Western eyes.

In the short term, he says, the evolution of airpower will be “complementary” to existing older technologies. Acknowledging that overshoot is simply too expensive for some countries to credibly adopt, Dr Jordan says the future lies in building military aircraft whose strengths and weaknesses can be played off against each other. .

He explains: “The realization that if you pair a fifth generation aircraft with some sort of 4.5 generation aircraft like the Typhoon, you can get a whole host of very interesting effects and results.

Generations, in the world of fighter aircraft design and development, are a rough way to measure progress. The world’s only fifth-generation jet aircraft is the F-35. Below is the BAE Systems Typhoon, Britain’s other main combat aircraft, as well as non-Western aircraft such as the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 air superiority fighter.

Apart from “generations” of human-piloted aircraft, developments in recent years suggest that humans could – at some point – be completely excluded from the cockpit.

Could technology take over?

Boeing has invested billions of dollars in its Loyal Wingman and MQ-25 Stingray drones, the latter being the most promising. The first is an unmanned vehicle, demonstrating how future fighter pilots could use technology to command one or more robot wingmen. The MQ-25, on the other hand, does not fight but is intended to be a flying service station – a tanker that allows other aircraft to refuel.

Such uses of unmanned technology to extend the endurance of human-piloted aircraft suddenly make a technology-powered future seem much closer.

In the Ukrainian skies, drones stand out mainly for their low-tech uses. Small consumer devices are used to launch hand grenades over enemy lines and drop them over the heads of enemy soldiers before they can react. Larger drones such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 are used for aerial reconnaissance. But air-to-air combat is largely absent from the picture.

“We have seen too many examples in the past of people commenting that they are getting carried away with technology,” warns Dr Jordan. Echoing the USAF’s Dr. Venable’s warning to draw premature conclusions from the Ukrainian conflict, he likens the tendency of some thinkers to say drones can do anything to Duncan Sandys’ defense review of 1957.

Then, as now, the debate was between human-piloted aircraft and the drones of their time, guided missiles such as the Bristol Bloodhound. It took years for the RAF to recover from the Conservative government’s decision to bet big on missiles rather than human-piloted aircraft. Arguably, Britain’s aviation industry never recovered from the resulting series of state-sponsored mergers.

Calling for a “more incremental approach”, Dr Jordan says Western air power thinkers shouldn’t assume that modern drones will be “capable of doing anything that something like an F-22, or a Tempest, or an F-35 can do now”. .”

British thinking about future combat air power could be described as pragmatic, focusing on BAE Systems’ Tempest aircraft.

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This notice was published: 2022-06-19 05:00:00

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