Is the air force obsolete?

don’t mean is the Indian air force obsolete (it has been for some time and everyone knows it) or is the US air force obsolete, I mean is the idea of an air force as we have come to recognize it in the second half of the 20th century obsolete? If so, how and who will take its place?

The military potential of aircraft was discovered in World War 1 where they started off as artillery spotters and grew into bombers and fighters. But somehow nobody really saw the full potential of the air arm of the military except Germany. The United States by contrast didn’t even have an air force but had its planes under control of the army.

World War 2 brought out the power of the air plane as the Axis overran the land war of the French Maginot Line and the British Sea fortress of Singapore. Alarmed by the tide of the war, Walt Disney teamed up with Russian-American aviation pioneer Alexander P. de Seversky to create this piece called Victory Through Air Power in 1943.

The battle of tomorrow as seen on the day before yesterday

During the 1950s and 60s, aircrafts advanced rapidly under the spectre of the cold war with new designs coming out every couple of years. But interesting for us was the difference in philosophy between western and Soviet warplane development. NATO aircraft generally maintained an edge in technology. The Soviet Union believed in mass producing aircraft (sometimes selling them cheaply to third world countries). In the event of war, planes and men were expected to be consumed in large numbers.

This is one of the key points in our story. The idea that

According to a 2015 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,

“advances in electronic sensors, communications technology, and guided weapons may have fundamentally transformed the nature of air combat.”

Specifically, speed and maneuverability

“are much less useful now that aircraft can be detected and engaged from dozens of miles away.”

The future seems to be mobile heavily sensor equipped missile platforms. In other words, missile equipped drones.

Just to clarify, today’s terrorist hunting drones are effectively useless against any enemy with even a basic air defense capability. In fact when drones were used to monitor Iran, US F22 Raptor jets had to be dispatched on many occasions to protect them from the Iranian air force.

Part of the problem is that the current generation of drones are remotely operated, sometimes from half way across the world. With such a system, it is impossible to get the same high speed responses one would get in a piloted aircraft. Finally, the current generation of drones are meant for ground attack and reconnaissance, not air to air combat.

To achieve that goal, we would probably need on-board intelligence to fly the aircraft. This may be more difficult than it sounds. A human pilot is remarkably robust to inputs. If the radar is jammed, he can fly on visual, in the dark, he can fly on instrumentation alone. Any AI would have to have a very high degree of built in redundancy. But the essential thing to remember is that this problem has to be solved just once. After that, the drone will only get better. Compare that with one estimate according to which, it takes $6 million to train a single US air force fighter pilot.

So will Top Gun pilots got the way of the cavalry? We’ll find out soon enough. If so, that is unlikely to be the end of the story. Moves and counter-moves will invariably follow.



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