Warplanes: The Revolution Continues Up There


January 31, 2006: The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to redefine the use of airpower. Since World War II, the air force increasingly emphasized their ability to hit targets farther in the enemy rear, thus crippling the ability of the enemy ground and air forces to continue fighting. But the recent introduction of better, and cheaper, smart bombs and sensors, has changed the way air power is being used. The ability to drop bombs with greater accuracy, in any weather, has made it safer for both the bomber and friendly troops. The GPS JDAM or, in clear weather, laser guided bombs, keep the bombers out of range of ground fire, and put the bombs down with greater accuracy, more of the time, than ever before. After sixty years of fearing your own bombers, because of the pre-GPS rate at which less accurate bombs hit the good guys, troops are enthusiastically calling in air power more and more. It's gotten to the point where artillery units are complaining that the air force is putting them out of work. That's exactly what has happened, with many artillery units being converted to infantry.

In addition to the large scale return of "close air support," there is also the trend of turning bombers into reconnaissance aircraft. High resolution, all weather, video cameras are not just letting the pilots know what's down there, but giving the ground troops a better idea of what they are dealing with. Some of this video is being transmitted to the troops below, and new communications gear in the works, will make this easier. At the moment, the higher resolution vids are too large to transmit back. Yes, the aircraft need broadband (or broader bandwidth) to send down high definition video. But that is being addressed, mainly because the video from the warplanes has proved enormously useful on the ground. While the infantry have their own UAVs, there isn't enough of this new "live video from above" available. The bombers not only provide an eye in the sky, but bombs on demand and, if need be, a few low passes accompanied by 20mm or 30mm cannon fire. New gun sights have made this kind of fire more effective, and the troops on the ground are glad to have it. The pilots, despite the increased risk to them and their aircraft, like the opportunity to get closer to the action.

The air force, somewhat distracted by the scramble to find enough money to build more of the new F-22 fighters, and looking over their shoulder at the new combat UAV designs (that will put a lot of pilots out of work), are allowing these major changes in air warfare to play out. The pilots aren't complaining, for they are out doing what they have been trained to do; fight. The navy and marine pilots are even more into it, since they always had a greater attachment to getting involved with the ground battle. It was the air force that developed all the, behind-the-lines, "servicing-the-target" stuff during the Cold War.

But now, technology and circumstances have combined to make warplanes part of the battle more than they have been for decades.


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