Drones and the Future of Aerial Combined Arms


Today, fighter pilots approach warfare like a questing medieval knight. They search for opponents with similar capabilities and defeat them by using technologically superior equipment or better application of individual tactics and techniques. For decades, leading air forces nurtured this dynamic by developing expensive, manned air superiority fighters. This will all soon change. Advances in unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) will turn fighter pilots from noble combatants to small-unit leaders and drive the development of new aerial combined arms tactics.

Since ancient times, commanders have dealt with diverse threats by integrating combat arms to achieve complementary effect. Macedonian hoplites were protected by a screen of javelin-throwing skirmishers, medieval pikemen cooperated with primitive musketeers, and modern U.S. Army brigade combat teams integrate artillery, armor, and infantry elements into a unified force. Fighter pilots of the future will not be the individualistic warriors of today, but rather commanders of small combined arms forces largely consisting of UCAVs. As in modern ground forces, these integrated groups of manned fighters and UCAVs will possess a mix of specialized capabilities ranging from direct combat to electronic warfare.

A future fighter aircraft with advanced communications will control semi-autonomous UCAV systems from dozens or hundreds of miles behind the line of battle, well outside the range of most enemy missiles and radars. From this vantage point, the fighter commander will guide drones in a myriad of tasks, locating enemy fighters with advanced radar and infrared sensors, engaging them with UCAV-carried missiles, and blinding the enemy through electronic jamming and attack. While opponents are tied up dogfighting drones, future fighter commanders will seize advantageous positions or engage distracted enemy aircraft with their own missiles.


If a fighter commander is task-saturated or destroyed, aircraft such as the E-3 airborne early warning control center (AWACS) will be able to assume control of the UCAVs through communications links. Pilots onboard the AWACs will fly additional drones in support of fighter elements and take control of UCAVs as friendly manned fighters are lost to the enemy. As the E-3’s embedded pilots engage the enemy, other crewmen will feed information to higher headquarters and sync intelligence inputs from friendly aircraft in theater.

Even further from the front lines, legacy bombers such as the B-1 and B-52 will loiter hundreds of miles away and sling long-range missiles at enemy targets painted by UCAV radars and infrared sensors, greatly expanding the number of munitions in the fight. This “aerial artillery” will be especially useful against foes fielding large numbers of fourth-generation fighters.

Fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter already attempt to integrate many of the features described above into a single platform, but at great expense and increased vulnerability. A single enemy missile could remove a $148 million investment from the battlefield, the current production cost of an F-35A. Diversifying this investment across several drone aircraft and a simplified fighter with command and control capabilities would ease the development of these platforms and prevent the problems that arise when you attempt to make a weapon system that’s “good at everything.”

Dispersing the capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the F-35 across a team of UCAVs also allows for individual weapon systems to be used in the best manner possible. The integration of these functions into a single fighter forces the pilot to employ his systems sub-optimally; theoretically, a stealth fighter conducting an electronic attack could expose its location by repeatedly broadcasting signals traceable by enemy aircraft. Distributing these capabilities among UCAVs allows the controlling fighter to achieve complementary effects by placing UCAVs into the best position to employ their particular weapon system or intelligence-collection capability. Imagine a forward-positioned UCAV jamming an enemy fighter’s radar moments before the impact of its wingman’s missile.

Combined arms tactics on the ground have evolved for over 2,000 years, but aerial combined arms tactics remain in infancy. The modest integration of unmanned assets with manned fighters and bombers over the last decade has been impressive, but remains nascent. As nations invest hundreds of billions in developing the next air superiority fighter, they should consider how changes in the nature of air combat could affect the dominance of any single platform. They also should examine their financial ability to replace a $100 million-plus aircraft during a protracted air war. The U.S. military lost 671 F-4 Phantoms during the Vietnam War, but were able to absorb the cost — an F-4 would be approximately $20 million today. The replacement of 671 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters would cost nearly $100 billion, almost a fifth of the annual defense budget!

The fifth-generation fighters in development far surpass their fourth-generation predecessors, but combined arms concepts, not isolated technology, triumph in combat. At the beginning of World War II, the German Wehrmacht possessed similar technology to its main opponents, but easily beat French and British armies by executing a superior concept of technological integration, blitzkrieg. Roman legions won through the same means; they dominated the ancient world for centuries by combining types of light infantry into revolutionary combat formations. As the military technology of other states begins to match the United States, the U.S. Air Force must avoid creating the best weapons systems with the poorest concepts for their employment.


Jules Hurst is the outgoing Senior Intelligence Analyst of 1st Ranger Battalion and an Army Reserve Officer.  He has deployed to Afghanistan four times in support of a USSOCOM Task Force, where he worked extensively with most of the U.S. Air Force inventory of unmanned systems.  The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory