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A comparison of the F-16, F-15 and MiG-29... by a pilot who flew all three


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This is old news to the well-informed, but part of the problem is also simple psychology. Nobody in the navy wants to be stuck as captain of a patrol boat, even if swarms are more efficient. And nobody in the airforce wants to be stuck as a drone jockey. So you are always going to have people in both organisations pushing for big ships and manned aircraft.

 

Yeah, career advancement is generally behind some of the objections to Jeune École style strategies, but they actually have happened repeatedly in smaller navies with little crappy ships like the La Combattantes and various missile boats getting built and then getting casually drubbed when they come across real ships, like in Operation Praying Mantis. Of course in smaller navies, people may well consider having more commands to go around to be a very good thing (part of why it's the young school). Sensor fits and/or serious networking and C3 capabilities are pretty important to getting this sort of thing to work, and they are not cheap at all.

 

 

And Panther tanks. And Thutty Kal Battle Riffles.

 

Neither of those have the benefit of creating more impressive commands for people worried about getting stuck commanding some low level unit and having a route to top rank. A battle rifle is still a rifle that a man holds and a Panther is still a tank that carries five guys.

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Yeah, career advancement is generally behind some of the objections to Jeune École style strategies, but they actually have happened repeatedly in smaller navies with little crappy ships like the La Combattantes and various missile boats getting built and then getting casually drubbed when they come across real ships, like in Operation Praying Mantis. Of course in smaller navies, people may well consider having more commands to go around to be a very good thing (part of why it's the young school). Sensor fits and/or serious networking and C3 capabilities are pretty important to getting this sort of thing to work, and they are not cheap at all.

 

 

 

Neither of those have the benefit of creating more impressive commands for people worried about getting stuck commanding some low level unit and having a route to top rank. A battle rifle is still a rifle that a man holds and a Panther is still a tank that carries five guys.

 

I got the original point, but I think you're missing the user influence side of things. A soldier may want the biggest baddest rifle he can get, regardless of how it impacts his effectiveness. Ditto a tanker and his tank.

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I don't think UCAVs will be competitive with manned fighters for a while for the following reasons:

 

 

-ECM is a thing, and just because the US has been fighting people armed with dried grass lately doesn't mean that everyone is armed with dried grass.  A UCAV in a really heavy ECM environment is screwed in a lot of subtle ways.  Good enough ECM means no signals from the operator.  Fine, you say, we have the software for the drone to navigate its way around the battlefield autonomously.  Oh really?  What about when the GPS gets jammed out?  INS is only so accurate, and the technology for a drone to automatically correlate terrain features with an internal map the way a human pilot could does not, to my knowledge, exist.

 

Electronic IFF only works so well; that was why F-4s in Vietnam had to visident anything they wanted to shoot at, and also the reason that blue on blue was a higher cause of Coalition losses in Iraq than Iraqi bullets.  A pair of eyes attached to a brain is a mighty fine thing to have in a fighter.

 

-A drone could in theory outmaneuver a manned fighter, and it could do so in some novel and unexplored ways.  For instance, a drone could have negative G limits that were as high as its positive G limits, which is impossible in a manned fighter.  However, actual aircraft are G-limited by their structure, which is only built strong enough to withstand what a human could stand.  A drone that could explore the additional maneuverability made possible by the lack of a pilot would have to be purpose-built and would probably be expensive.

 

-Fighter size isn't really driven by the pilot; it's not like taking away the pilot will allow you to make dinky little fighters that are a bazillion times more efficient.  It would allow modest gains at best.

 

The biggest driver of a fighter's size are still the engine and the radar.  Engine isn't too bad; lop the cockpit off and fit a smaller engine to compensate.  However, making competitive fighter gas turbines is a lengthy and expensive process these days, so you couldn't do that overnight.

 

Radar is harder.  Radar range, frequency and power are still a function of antenna diameter (although less so than in the past thanks to science).  A fighter with a weak radar can't BVR, and BVR actually works now.  The number of cheap drones a raptor can kill without risk to itself is basically a function of how many AMRAAMs it can cram into its bays.
 

 

UCAVs look really good for bombing people armed with dried grass because it's easy to strap hellfires to a predator and blow up Pathan wedding parties.  They're still a long, long way off from being able to do air superiority.

 

I am curious to find that report on the firebees getting a solution on those F-4s.  I would think they contrived the situation just to see if it was possible.  I don't think they even had all-aspect sidewinders at that time.  The phantoms would have had to let themselves get tailed by the drones for the shot to be possible.

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I don't think UCAVs will be competitive with manned fighters for a while for the following reasons:

 

 

-ECM is a thing, and just because the US has been fighting people armed with dried grass lately doesn't mean that everyone is armed with dried grass.  A UCAV in a really heavy ECM environment is screwed in a lot of subtle ways.  Good enough ECM means no signals from the operator.  Fine, you say, we have the software for the drone to navigate its way around the battlefield autonomously.  Oh really?  What about when the GPS gets jammed out?  INS is only so accurate, and the technology for a drone to automatically correlate terrain features with an internal map the way a human pilot could does not, to my knowledge, exist.

Uh, terrain navigation is how tomahawk found it's way to target in the old days. Even then, you don't need much accuracy to head to an area and stay at an altitude.

ECM is a bit more of an issue, but remember that pK for missiles goes up in a greater-than-proportional fashion as your launch number increases. Additionally, ECM gets less effective the more sensors you have and the more places those sensors are relative to you. The cloud of expendable assets you're flying through means that something is going to get a good lock.

 

Electronic IFF only works so well; that was why F-4s in Vietnam had to visident anything they wanted to shoot at, and also the reason that blue on blue was a higher cause of Coalition losses in Iraq than Iraqi bullets.  A pair of eyes attached to a brain is a mighty fine thing to have in a fighter.

IFF gets less important when your assets are of the throw-away variety: you're 'oh crap we lost a pilot moment' becomes an 'oh well we lost a drone'. By removing an expensive and hard-to-replace piece of equipment (the meaty bit) from your platform, you make losses much more palatable. 

 

-A drone could in theory outmaneuver a manned fighter, and it could do so in some novel and unexplored ways.  For instance, a drone could have negative G limits that were as high as its positive G limits, which is impossible in a manned fighter.  However, actual aircraft are G-limited by their structure, which is only built strong enough to withstand what a human could stand.  A drone that could explore the additional maneuverability made possible by the lack of a pilot would have to be purpose-built and would probably be expensive.

It would indeed be purpose-built, as I see no point in taking a manned fighter and dronifying it. Thankfully it is cheaper than ever to prototype and test airframes.

 

-Fighter size isn't really driven by the pilot; it's not like taking away the pilot will allow you to make dinky little fighters that are a bazillion times more efficient.  It would allow modest gains at best.

 

The biggest driver of a fighter's size are still the engine and the radar.  Engine isn't too bad; lop the cockpit off and fit a smaller engine to compensate.  However, making competitive fighter gas turbines is a lengthy and expensive process these days, so you couldn't do that overnight.

 

Radar is harder.  Radar range, frequency and power are still a function of antenna diameter (although less so than in the past thanks to science).  A fighter with a weak radar can't BVR, and BVR actually works now.  The number of cheap drones a raptor can kill without risk to itself is basically a function of how many AMRAAMs it can cram into its bays.

These three issues are legit, but the extent to which they are crippling to the concept depend on exactly how the design and implementation shake out. My concept here is to simply soak the loss of capability on the assumption that you can optimise things like cost and specialist function. I really don't know how it will work in practice. In the case of turbines, at least, we have a lot of existing designs to choose from.

 

UCAVs look really good for bombing people armed with dried grass because it's easy to strap hellfires to a predator and blow up Pathan wedding parties.  They're still a long, long way off from being able to do air superiority.

The joke being that bombing people armed with dry grass is where you really need a human eyes and brain, as separating the good 'uns from the bad is a tricky task. Which is why I get something of a grim laugh out of the fact that this is the area where your government decided 'fuck it, we'll accept lower standards and just kill a bunch of innocent people'.

 

I am curious to find that report on the firebees getting a solution on those F-4s.  I would think they contrived the situation just to see if it was possible.  I don't think they even had all-aspect sidewinders at that time.  The phantoms would have had to let themselves get tailed by the drones for the shot to be possible.

I really want to see it as well. The very limited stuff I've been able to find seems to show that people at the time thought the outcome was legit, at least.

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TERCOM allowed the missile to get from A to B via path C.  It couldn't solve for C if it were dropped on any A and told to get to any B.  It was also an active emitter.

 

The last part is the most important distinction; if it's an active RW emitter, it can be both detected and jammed.  It probably would be possible to make an full replacement for INS based on radar mapping; computers are far stronger than in the '80s, but it still doesn't solve the problem of it being an active emitter.

 

I suspect that the skies will get a lot less friendly for anything unwanted that's beaming RW.  Stealth shaping is currently predicated on the assumption that the emitter is co-located with the receiver.  Improvements in signals processing could make it possible to distribute a whole mess of passive receivers that triangulate signals bouncing off of anything that gets let up by a common emitter.  It's certainly an area of active research, since it potentially makes stealth not work.

 

A side effect would by that anything that so much as peeps in the wavelengths the receiver array is sensitive to is suddenly famous.

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