July 30, 2012: The U.S. Air Force has decided that it needs a new stealth bomber and more technology to enable existing aircraft to penetrate airspace defended by modern air defense systems. The air force is particularly concerned about its current fleet of UAVs, which are sitting ducks for most modern anti-aircraft missiles.
This is not a new problem, as the air force first encountered this situation in 1999, during the air campaign against Serbia. Of the 17 aircraft lost, 15 were UAVs. The Serbs had more anti-aircraft guns and missiles and were more aggressive in using them against UAVs. The Serbs even managed to bring down a stealth aircraft. The air force expects even more trouble from the Chinese, Iranians, or even the North Koreans.
The second problem, which the air force does not want to discuss in detail, is the vulnerability of the electronic link between the UAVs and their controllers. The air force uses a satellite link for its larger (Global Hawk, Predator, and Reaper) UAVs and is installing similar datalinks in manned aircraft. There have been increasing problems with people jamming or otherwise messing with signals between satellites and the ground. Military data links are designed to defeat this jamming but there is always some vulnerability. While manned aircraft can still operate without the links, the UAVs cannot. The air force apparently believes this situation will get worse. They are working on it but not talking about it, which makes sense.
Today's UAVs are basically the same as those flying in the 1990s. That is, they are slow, non-stealthy, propeller driven aircraft. Flying at altitudes between 3,000-6,000 meters (10-20,000 feet) the UAVs can be seen and are sitting ducks for mobile anti-aircraft systems. Some of these can reach as high as 6,000 meters. Typical of these is the Russian 9M311 (SA-19). These missiles have a ten kilometer range against air targets and can hit targets at up to 8,300 meters (26,000 feet). The missile weighs 40 kg (88 pounds) and has a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead. These missiles are commonly found in a light armored vehicle (Tor M1) that also carries a 30mm cannon (that can hit aircraft as high as 3,200 meters) and a radar. Lots of countries have, or are obtaining, weapons like this. Manned aircraft often have electronic countermeasures to protect them from this sort of thing but UAVs are just now receiving some of these counter-measures. The air force wants to speed up the process.
Some air force commanders point out that heavy losses would be suffered in such an environment, even if Hellfire equipped UAVs hunted down and destroyed many of these mobile anti-aircraft systems. But by equipping the UAVs with countermeasures, the enemy air defenses would be at a disadvantage. The air force is looking into this opportunity as well. No point in waiting for trouble, it's best to have a few surprises ready for any future foe.
Air force commanders are also concerned about the larger number of pilots needed to operate UAVs (each one requires 2-3 operators to keep them up there for a typical 16-20 hour sortie). The problem is that UAVs stay in the air longer than manned aircraft and thus need more pilots. Operating a UAV is easier (physically and psychologically) than piloting a manned aircraft. But the big problem in the air force is their insistence on using officers as UAV operators, while the other services will use NCOs. The air force only recently began training non-pilots to operate UAVs. The air force was compelled to go this way because there were simply not enough pilots available for UAV operator duty. The air force is automating more of the "piloting", something that has been going on for manned aircraft as well.
The biggest problem the air force will have is obtaining money for a new bomber (the LRSB, Long-Range Strike Bomber). The air force says it can build, design, develop, and get this into service within 15 years at a cost of $550 million each (in current dollars). Development costs will be kept low by using a lot of existing technology. In effect, the LRSB would be a larger version of the F-35, able to carry 6-10 tons of smart bombs over 9,000 kilometers on internal fuel. Few in Congress believe the air force can pull this off and that if they are allowed to try and build the LRSB the aircraft would be late and cost over a billion dollars each. Moreover, the air force budget is shrinking and there are huge costs looming to pay for over a thousand new F-35s, to replace aging F-16s and F-15s. There is also pressure to go with stealthy combat UAVs, which the fighter pilots running the air force are not enthusiastic about. The future of the LRSB, and manned aircraft in general, does not look good. No matter what air force leaders want, they will have to deal with the more immediate problems of protecting UAVs and paying for all those new F-35s.