Future trajectory of airpower

AVM M Z Faisal (Retd)

THE unparallel advancements in aerospace technology and its gallops in the innovative future are unprecedented. Whereas the classic roles of airpower remain firmly entrenched, the future could witness extraordinary changes in doctrines, concepts, strategies, and tactics. The pace of airpower evolution is so fast that by the time a new weapon is developed, procured, and deployed, an improved technology renders it archaic. The science-fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke said “We cannot predict the new forces, powers, and discoveries that will be disclosed to us when we reach the other planets and set up new laboratories in space.

They are as much beyond our vision today as fire or electricity would be beyond the imagination of a fish.” Predicting the future of air power is somewhat challenging due to the dynamic nature of factors that influence its trajectory such as technology, doctrines, and geopolitics. However, the evolving trends can lead to some informed estimates about the future of air power. Controversial for many, space is fast becoming the future battlefield with successful anti-satellite tests already being conducted and a blueprint for the deployment of directed energy weapons (DEW), and kinetic energy weapons (KEW) already conceived. Spacehas already inhabited systems that serve as critical enablers for many of the airpower capabilities on the ground or in the air.

This assessment on space warfare is made with full knowledge of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 banning the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space and the joint resolution by China and Russia on“no first placement of weapons in outer space” adopted in 2022. Another leading trend in airpower is the vigorous pursuit of artificial intelligence (AI) and its integration into different airpower systems. The near future is going to witness increased use of AI-supported autonomous UCAVs in surveillance, reconnaissance, combat, and strike roles.

The AI algorithms are most suited to facilitate critical decision-making and this edge in Observe-Orientate-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop can be a decisive advantage for military commanders at different levels of war. The famous physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned many years ago, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race— Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” Alongside artificial intelligence, Quantum Computing is another buzzword with promising air power applications for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, and cyber.

It can enhance air power capabilities in numerous ways, from breaking enemy cryptographic codes to optimizing mission planning and fast an alyzing huge data from multiple sources. Another major trend in air power is the development of hypersonic aircraft and missiles, which can travel at speeds greater than Mach-5. These aircraft and weapons will have the capability to strike any target across the globe within a short span of time without facing any credible intercept challenge to their success and survival. Russia has already used Kinzhal hypersonic missile against Ukraine which was largely seen as a political signal rather than an operational expediency. With the increasing reliance on digital technology in air power, cyber warfare has already become an area of critical interest both in offense and defense.

Air power is already investing heavily in cyber security measures to protect against cyber threats to communication infrastructure, weapon systems, command and control centers, power hubs, etc. Directed-energy weapons, such as lasers and high-powered microwaves (HPM), though operational, are not matured to their full employment potential. While the ground-based laser is an effective point-defense weapon that can destroy airborne targets with pinpoint accuracy, the HPM isa non-lethal weapon that can destroy electronic devices, such as radars, aircraft avionics, and communication systems.

These are particularly effective to counter the UAV threat by disrupting the control signals between the operator and the UAV, causing it to crash or recover without mission success. Another extensively explored field is Nanotechnology for its wide military applications in the development of new materials and devices. For example, nano-scale surveillance sensors could detect and track enemy movements without being noticed- or swarms of small, interconnected drones could be used to provide firepower or saturate enemy defenses.

The giant leaps of air power into the future do not come without certain criticisms from observers. The most critiqued subject is the huge cost incurred on air power technology much of which is lost to rapid obsolescence. Humanrights activists see this cost in direct conflict with human development. There is also a concern about the extreme reliance on autonomous systems and artificial intelligence that may lead to a potential loss of critical decision-making skills by commanders.

As air power becomes more net-centric and interconnected through computer and communication systems, there is a growing risk that it may get crippled by advanced cyber-attack tactics forcing it to crawl back to the manual days of operations.Last but not least is the ethical concern over the destructive combat potential of air power and its blazing impact in generating human suffering.

Admiral Michael Mullen said “We’re at a real time of transition here in terms of future aviation. What’s going to be manned? What’s going to be unmanned? There are those who see [JSF] as the last manned fighter/bomber. And I’m one that’s inclined to believe it whether it’s right or not.” In all logical assessments, future airpower is poised to become more responsive, intelligent, versatile, and lethal. Alongside kinetic applications, the future may find an emphasis on the “invisible battlefield” generated by the applications of electronic warfare, cyberattacks, information warfare, and near-invisible nano weapons.

Whereas historically a fine balance between offense and defense has prevailed, the future presents significant challenges to air defense particularly from hypersonic weapons, cyber-attacks, miniaturized weapons, and autonomous drones. Countries that can adapt and leverage these technologies effectively will have an advantage in future conflicts.

—AVM M Z Faisal (Retd) is Director Warfare and Aerospace at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan. He may be reached at [email protected]