Will the 5th be the last manned fighter generation?


I mean, there are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter -- or fighter-bomber, or jet. And I'm one of -- you know, I'm one that's inclined to believe that.
This quote was attributed to Admiral Mullen by many newspapers and blogs in May and caused a short flare-up of discussion about manned vs. unmanned combat aviation.
Strangely, the transcript says that a comptroller called Robert Hale said the quote, not Mullen.

Anyway; let me vent off my unimportant opinion on the issue, after three weeks of maturing the thought.

I'm actually utterly undecided on this issue in regard to conventional combat aviation. A new strike fighter type seems to require a development phase of two decades unless something terrible happens. The need to replace the F-22 and F-35 will probably arise by 2040 if things keep on going as slowly as in the past decades (which included a big chunk of the intense Cold War).
It's near-impossible to be serious about such long-term predictions; even the engineers who are deeply involved in this kind of stuff couldn't do much more than to throw a coin.

I think that the whole debate looks into the wrong direction anyway. It looks at conventional air power, the man+machine sized air power.

The beauty of unmanned aviation isn't merely its potentially extreme endurance and the supposedly reduced risk for humans.
The beauty of the concept lies in the ability to create aircraft smaller than man+machine. It's just about machines, and those can be really tiny.

Long-time readers of this blog won't be surprised about this opinion of mine:
A classic fighter is irrelevant in the low-level micro air war.
A F-22 is entirely irrelevant in regard to drones that are smaller and cheaper than its missiles. The same applies to Rafales, Typhoons, PAK-FA and all other conventional fighters.
They're useless against small drones.

The next great challenge in air war will not be about complex fighters and bombers; it will be about drones of one pound to few hundred kilograms weight.
These drones will be close to earth, probably even resting quite often on the surface (this makes them invisible to doppler radar modes as usually used to locate moving aircraft).

These drones can be too small, too numerous, too difficult to hit and too cheap to be defeated by conventional missiles and fighters.

There's some buzz about space war and some buzz about robotic air war, yet I'd like to assert this:

The future aerospace warfare will know three levels:

* exoatmospheric

* classic atmospheric

* miniaturized low level

Exoatmospheric warfare will be the supreme discipline. I expect that the nations with space programs today will participate. At most Europe, USA, Russia, PR China, Japan and India will exploit it well - others might limit themselves to countermeasures against hostile satellites.

Classic atmospheric air war may be robotic or not; I strongly suspect that the difference will be slight. The greater difference to air wars as we know them will probably be the increased use of hypervelocity missiles (that may leave the atmosphere temporarily) - ballistic and quasi-ballistic missiles. These will probably be the offensive air war weapons of choice for powers that cannot establish and maintain a full conventional air war system.

Miniaturized low level air war will be completely new and probably surprisingly low-level. Classic air superiority is here equally irrelevant as in space. Any country with some electronics companies could participate. There will be air-air, air-ground and recce drones.

- - - - -

The established air superiority and air defence may be irrelevant to the new levels, but it's only natural that they'll emerge (and be improvised at first).

Just a short list of possible threats to low-level drones:

* small fighter drones
(there's actually something quite close under development)

* machine guns and auto cannons
(automated or manual fire control)

* barrage balloons with net obstacles
(proven countermeasure to planes till WW2, effective up to several hundred metres)

* good old shotguns
(they work on birds - they will work on bird-like drones)

I actually gave a hint on the shotgun vs. micro drones idea already in April:
Shotguns (especially automatic ones) also seem most promising to me as a counter-weapon to the micro air vehicles that are under development; bird-sized flying reconnaissance/surveillance drones. You don't want to shoot an erratically-moving 10 cm diameter target at 50m distance with an assault rifle - it would take several magazines on average to hit once. A shotgun would kill such a target just as if it's being used for bird hunting.

Why is no miniaturized air combat drone known publicly (or why don't I know about it)?
Maybe because the West ignores the possibility of quantity-produced cheap enemy drones so far. Another plausible explanation: They may be hidden in black budgets.

- - - - -

The next fighter is likely unmanned, but no classic fighter generation as apparently expected by most people. I'm completely undecided on whether the next classic fighter generation will be robotic.



  1. Small to medium sized low-altitude drones could be used as platforms for all sorts of different EW, survaillance, communications, support, and even offensive capabilities. "Swarm warfare" could be the future.

  2. Dr. Luny is right about "swarm warfare." Consider the Rand study on an air war against China. Even with qualitative supremacy of US fighters against Chinese fighters, the quantitative superiority of Chinese fighters equipped with numerous short and medium range missiles would win over nearly any US conventional response. Even with taking monumental losses, the swarm method proves effective. While the USAF cannot simply sacrifice pilots like the PLAAF, the idea of creating unmanned swarm aircraft to be used against fighter threats should be considered.

  3. Against micro-drones / close defence: : Use a laser