What Drones Can’t Do, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 23 2012 @ 9:34am

A reader writes:

CJ Chivers wrote: "Technical limits restrict the missions that unmanned aircraft can perform, and drones, for all their abilities, are very vulnerable machines. Whatever futurists predict, in the arena of air-to-air warfare, drones can neither reliably defend themselves nor consistently elude a determined attack." Chivers forgets: money and miniaturization. Some day soon, the military will realize that for the price of one human-piloted fighter jet like the F-22 Raptor (62 feet long, 44-foot wingspan) it can build a dozen drones that are each six-feet long and have a four-foot wingspan – essentially guided missiles with the ability to guide themselves. Sure, when that swarm of a dozen drones attacks an enemy fighter, the enemy might shoot down 10 or 11 of them. But one or two will get through, and the enemy will be just as dead, at a cost of zero American lives.

How will you fight a dozen six-foot drones? With 100 two-foot drones. How will you fight 100 two-foot drones? With 500 three-inch drones. Nanowarfare, here we come.

An expert weighs in:

I am an aeronautical engineer who has been thinking about this issue for the last 15 years, give or take. And while CJ Chivers gets a lot right, he kind of misses the point. The manned tactical fighter is at the same place on the technological curve that the battleship was in 1940.

Manned tactical fighters, at least the most modern, are incredibly expensive. Survivability drives the price up. It's not so much that you want the airplane back, as you want the pilot. Aside from the basic humanitarian concern, you've sunk a lot into training that officer, and want a return on that investment. So, we sink a lot of cash into things that make the fighter harder to spot and more resistant to damage. So far, so good. But there's a huge change coming that will revolutionize air combat when it happens.

In 2010, a high-energy laser installed within a modified 747's fuselage engaged and destroyed an airborne test target. Today, a program is underway to fit a smaller version into a C-130. It's no stretch to see a future version not too far off that can fit in an F-22's weapon bays. At which point, Game Over.

A missile launch can be detected and its guidance can be jammed. You have no such defense against a tactical laser. The first indication you have that you've even been spotted is when your airplane sprouts a few new holes. And all you have to do to ruin a pilot's whole day is to put a hole in his fuel tank and ignite the contents. A high-power laser would do this nicely.

So, survivability changes from robustness to just NOT BEING SEEN. Ever. THIS is what will make manned tactical fighters prohibitively expensive, and sooner than a lot of people realize.

So that's what's driving the move to drones. That, and no one ever had to write a "deeply regret" letter to the family of a robot. Their relative frailty is a feature, not a bug, since they can be bought in quantity and can be semi-expendable.