Will fighter aircraft become obsolete?

I’ve questioned for some time (including in these pages) whether, with the advent of light-speed energy weapons, manned aircraft have a viable future over the battlefield.  Now Flight Global asks the same question.

Despite anaemic sales growth, the defence industry somehow sustains 11 different fighter types in active production, with more in early development. Yet the future of the fighter’s core mission has never been more uncertain. Fifth-generation designs were supposed to give way by 2030 to a sixth, which would leverage advances in tailless flight controls, advanced stealth, efficient supersonic propulsion and new weapons.

Now the US Air Force is having second thoughts about developing such a fighter. In unusually candid remarks, the service’s lead requirements setter, Lt Gen James Holmes, says no new technology on the horizon is likely to make a sixth-generation fighter survivable against advanced ground-based air defences.

It has been known for some time that a modern-day, close-in dogfight is essentially a mutual suicide pact for the opposing pilots, due to advances in high off-­boresight targeting and missile agility. But it is ­astonishing that the USAF should now acknowledge the fighter aircraft’s fundamental vulnerability to attacks from terra firma.

There’s more at the link.

Of course, one can’t help thinking of the ‘missile mafia’ of the 1950’s and 1960’s, who argued that aircraft were no longer needed because missiles would ‘do it all’.  We all know how that turned out . . .



  1. It was also proposed that guns were no longer needed in air-to-air combat because missiles would render them obsolete. The air war over Vietnam proved otherwise.

  2. I think we may see a move towards strike aircraft with drone defence aircraft as escorts. The drones can be controlled by the rear seat and provide air defence and active protection from ground fire via HARM etc. That leaves the strike aircraft free to pursue the more complex mission of ground target identification and neutralisation.

  3. In my time I have observed that such predictions eventually are borne out, but much later than predicted and never nearly as completely as predicted. What is almost always borne out is that the higher-ups like things that fly fast and high/ are armored/ blow stuff up at amazingly long range, and they are astonished to find that people find countermeasures for their pet creations. Yes, missiles made most of the kills for our top Vietnam War fighter pilots(after they figured out how to use them properly): missiles work great, until they don't. Yes, stealth aircraft can fool radar, until the radar changes. The list goes on…

  4. As I recall the hard limit on fighter performance is somewhere around 7-9 g. Any maneuvers above that will render a pilot unconscious.
    Seems that what might be needed is a high performance RPV capable of very high g combat maneuvers while the pilot/operator sits safely at a ground console.
    Cost far less than a manned fighter, and nothing manned could stand against them.
    Far cheaper as well as no requirement for any life support systems.

  5. Uncle Lar nailed it. Lower cost, higher performance, and safer for the good guys. Part of the bad news is that the elite cadré of dashing fighter pilots will be mothballed and replaced by a gang of 12-14 year olds who majored in video games, and who will tear up everything in sight.

  6. The question I'm still waiting on an answer to is this: When 5th Gen fighters go up against each other, what happens?

    It seems like most air-to-air battle theory rests on a basis of "Our invisible 5th gen fighters will kill all their 4th gen fighters before they ever see us"

    But if nobody can see anybody, it seems like ACM goes back to being a visual range, short-range missiles and guns affair, at least until someone gets better radar to counter the "invisible" fighters.

  7. If line-of-sight close-to-instant kill weapons become common, ALL aircraft, including bombers and drones will be obsolete if the enemy has those weapons

    If they are good enough, missiles may be obsolete as well (but that is a lot further off)

    they will also be a terrorist's dream in terms of the ability to down airliners.

    However, targeting is always going to be a problem.

    Is that a bomber or an airliner (at long range)?

    Is that a tree blowing in the wind, or a fighter?

    Is that a Stealth fighter or a large bird?

    If the radar can't detect it, you can't shoot it down (stealth still helps)

    But if your opponent _doesn't_ have such equipment, then aircraft will still be a lot of use.

    So they will be far less useful in the US is fighting China in 20 years. But would probably still be very useful to patrol the Persian Gulf in 40 years.

  8. Peter, you forget that generals and admirals don't make those decisions–politicians do. The F-35 fiasco went on so long not because it was the greatest aircraft ever made, but because it was the greatest JOBS PROGRAM since the New Deal. Every Congressional district got to bring home the bacon on this one!

    You get to be the one to tell Senator Graft that his district won't get the 30 jobs making the leather seat covers the fighter pilots sit on…


  9. The demise of manned fighter/attack aircraft has been bandied about for decades. There are certainly advantages to drones: no loss of human pilot, higher G-loading, more potential payload/longer range. The problem comes when someone develops the ability to jam the signals to the flight controls. With the advancement in on-board AI abilities the jamming may become moot. But then the question arises of: Do you really trust a synthetic intelligence to control your weapons platform?

    While I think drones will continue to play an expanding role in most countries arsenals, I think the human pilot is still going to be seen as useful in contested airspace where decisions need to be made 'on site'.

  10. Well Peter you article does bring up a number of issues.
    1. As discussed above the issue is about targeting. To launch a missile or use effectively a Laser (can I say "Death Ray" ?) you have to be confident of what you are hitting. Hence the interest in Low Observability not just in Radar Signature, but heat and the visual spectrum. If you can't see it you can't hit it even with a spit ball.
    2. The next issue is Identification. This goes for both firing your Laser at what you think is an enemy aircraft be it manned or unmanned. The problem is your Radar may see a small object but many things are small objects on Radar, so you need to be able to verify it has characteristics that confirms it is an enemy threat. For example nothing not man made flies at Mach 5 in level flight etc.
    3. Directing your response on Target. Again seeing something on Radar or using other exotic techniques is one thing, but if you can not go through steps 1 & 2 quickly enough to bring to bear your weapon then it is ineffectual. For example certain Radar bands will detect F22's & F117 & F35's but they can not get the range and bearing on those planes, for that you need another type of radar operating on a different frequency which can not see those aircraft. All it does is inform you of your impending doom. Further even if you can get through 1, 2 and 3 you still have to probably mid course correct your return fire. Even a Laser will have to take account of Air Density, Temperature etc to fire on target.

    If you as a defender can successfully overcome these three issues especially with a Direct Light Weapon mounted with a clean line of site over 100's of miles such as mounted in a plane at 60,000 feet or in low earth orbit on a Satellite happy days. The problem is that we even 30yrs after the US Star Wars effort have not miniaturized the equipment to fit on these platforms. Especially the equipment to meet the energy requirement. Is it impossible in the next 20yrs, maybe not, but we've been trying for 30yrs and haven't managed it yet.
    As to drones. Whilst they can be useful they have a number of limitations.
    1. Although they can pull high G's a laser doesn't care because the time from were is it to the arrival of the power to destroy you is so short the high G maneuver does not save the craft.
    2. Instructions. No Western Power has ever launched a weapons system without some Human Control in the Kill Chain. There are moves at the UN to ban AI Weapons systems the same as Gas Weapons (Although that doesn't stop nutters in Syria using them). The fact is that no communication has yet to be developed that can not be jammed. Loose contact loose the drones usefulness, even if as a fail-safe it will fly home to muma.
    2. Time Lag. Again even the fastest Communication method by the speed of light has lag as the message is encrypted in to an electronic message, sent, decompressed and un-encrypted. This may be hundredths of a Second but in this environment this counts for a lot.
    3. Rule of Engagement. Although modern sensors are great, the fact is the old Mk1 eyeball is needed to make sense of what's going on in a complicated enviroment. Hence why anybody who's called in A10's to get them out of the smelly stuff knows that a pilot using his eyeballs and brain can make quicker and safer decisions on where to drop munitions not only to protect his own troops but to all so save innocent parties.
    So will we see drones taking over, and laser weapons making impossible for aircraft anytime soon. Nope I think we will see evolving tactics, such as return to the nap of the earth flying so as to not present line of sight opportunities to ground based lasers, we will see attacks on these installations power sources and sensors.
    So who knows ?

  11. Khrushchev fired a bunch of pilots because he believed the Engineers about missiles. The difference between then and now is that microprocessors became a circuit element and control systems built around them have made possible what the Soviet Engineers of the 50s and 60s thought possible then. While, to borrow the line of one Character in the movie Midway, "The wait-and-see-ers will bust your ass every time," is true, it has taken awhile to reach that point with missile technology. The early Soviet version of the AIM-9 could be outflown by a competent pilot (I saw a film of an Israeli F-4 jerking all over the sky with one in hot pursuit), the modern missile is so much faster, and the processing power on board the missile so much greater, that with the normal engagement range of fighters in a furball, a kill is almost a certainty with a missile.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *