The Manned Fighter – Remembrance and Anticipation?
Sometimes historical anniversaries and cutting-edge stories arrive at an intriguing and coincidental juxtaposition.
This week in the UK we have been commemorating, in a somewhat low-key fashion due the ongoing Pandemic, the 80th anniversary of the date which is considered the end of The Battle of Britain. September 15th, 1940 was a watershed day not only in the Battle, but also in the Second World War and, arguably, a pivotal point in 20th Century world history. Operationally, the Luftwaffe lost in excess of 50 aircraft in the course of two large daylight forays over the UK, and, in response, changed their tactics to a night bombing campaign. The significance of this tactical reset was that it rendered precision targets that required degrading or destroying prior to any attempted invasion (airfields, coastal defences, radar sites, HQs inter alia) almost impossible to hit with the rudimentary navigation and weapon aiming technology of the day. Even the introduction of radio-navigation aids such as Knickebein (“Crooked Leg”) and X‑Great (“X‑Apparatus”) only permitted the bombers to target large urban areas – and even then, a combination of decoys to confuse the crews and electronic countermeasures that interfered with the beams had a significant impact upon accuracy.
For the only time in history, the manned interceptor/fighter aircraft – supported by a world leading radar and Command & Control (C2) system – materially affected the course of a war. Had the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command been swept from the skies of Britain, the route to either a German invasion/occupation of the UK, or, perhaps more likely given the vestigial strength of the Royal Navy, a change in Government and subsequent negotiated armistice, would have been wide open. A supplicant Britain, anxious to keep her Empire and institutions intact, would have little choice but to abandon the Continent to the Nazi regime, and, moreover, given the Wermacht both a secure ‘back door’ in France and a reduced requirement for Anti-Aircraft weapons in Germany. This would have enabled a far greater concentration of effort and a better selection of start date for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. Success against Stalin’s totalitarian regime would thus have been far more likely, and a Europe dominated by Germany with a neutral Britain and militarily vanquished Soviet Union would have been of little interest to a still instinctively isolationist United States, who, in any case, were spectacularly ill-equipped to do anything about it. It is no exaggeration to state that History owes an enormous debt to the fighter pilots (British, Empire, escapees from occupied Europe and US volunteers) known, forever more, as ‘The Few’ thanks to Churchill’s ebullient praise of them.
In the UK Armed Forces, the Royal Navy venerates Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar (1805) whilst the army commemorates Wellington’s final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo some ten years later. The last eyewitnesses and participants in these historical events died well over a century ago. A benefit of being the ‘junior service’ was that during my 20+ year RAF career we would invariably have veterans of the Battle at a formal Black-Tie Dining-in-Night held annually in the Officers’ Mess of most RAF Stations. After the obligatory flypast by a Spitfire and/or Hurricane fighter (which the RAF maintain for ceremonial and commemorative occasions) we would dine together. After the food was finished and the Loyal Toast to the Queen (and other Heads of State represented) given, one or more of the veterans would be encouraged to stand and speak. It was an immense privilege as a junior RAF pilot to hear, first hand, an account of our service’s ‘Finest Hour’ – often in speeches sprinkled with humour, delivered with a twinkling eye, and sadly, counter-punched with sadness and tragedy as they recalled fallen friends and comrades – this time accompanied by a moistened eye, and several others in the room.
However, as we must reflect upon our history to understand our journey and progress to date, we must also look to the future and chart out our direction of travel.
In recent weeks we’ve seen the revelation from DARPA that an Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm developed by Heron Systems achieved a significant ‘kill’ rate when attached to an F‑16 simulation and flown against USAF, USN and USMC pilots flying ‘virtual’ fighters in a lab at the USAF AFWERX facility at Nellis AFB, near Las Vegas, NV. My conclusion in an article a few months back, regarding Elon Musk’s claim that the fighter pilot was approaching the history books (here), expressed an opinion that whilst advanced AI could probably beat a poorly trained pilot now, it would take longer to outfight a tactical expert, such as a USAF Weapons School graduate. However, albeit in a very controlled environment with ‘guns only’, Heron’s AI reportedly managed to defeat a Weapons School ‘Patch Wearer’ 5 – 0 in simulated combat. Of course, it’s not conclusive – but it is instructive. The future is coming, and as it always does, seemingly at an unpredictable rate.
On the very day we were remembering ‘The Few’ in the UK, the USAF sprang yet another Hi-Tech surprise. At the Air Force Association’s Virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference, Dr Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics was discussing the progress of the USAF’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) project and it’s ‘digital world’ origins – in other words how much of its design, testing and manufacture was taking place ‘virtually’ with the innovative use of new materials and 3‑D printing. To the surprise of many, he then announced that:
“NGAD has come so far that the full-scale flight demonstrator has already flown in the physical world”.
The inference is that the USAF has rapidly developed and flown, in utter secrecy, a proto-Gen 6 fighter aircraft in the spirit of past ‘Black World’ programmes such as the ‘Tacit Blue’ (from which the F‑117 Nighthawk stealth fighter was developed) and the Boeing BA ‘Bird of Prey’ – which although not productionised, demonstrated a number of futuristic aerodynamic and low observable design features in a manned, live, platform. Roper was understandably coy on details of the air vehicle but admitted that it’s already “broken a lot of records”. Whether these ‘records’ refer to dynamic performance, payload, low observability or, being more prosaic, virtual drawing board to flight schedule, remains to be seen. He did allow, however, that he likens NGAD to a throwback to the ‘glory days’ of the US Aerospace Industry, where multiple household names competed for each competition that came along. As the projects, over time, became less frequent and fewer in number, the consequences of losing a competition often led to a merger with either the winner or another loser in order to survive. The end state has been that the US now has a binary choice in fighter manufacturers – Lockheed Martin LMT and Boeing. The former is ramping up F‑35 production whilst still building the F‑16, while the latter continues to build the Gen 4.5 F‑18 ‘Super Hornet’ for both domestic and export customers, and has recently received over a $Bn to build the first new-build F‑15s for the USAF in decades.
Roper’s insinuation is that NGAD will not be a ‘winner takes all’ behemoth programme. The USAF may buy limited batches of assets from innovative smaller businesses – ones with agility and flexibility that the ‘Primes’ simply can’t match. It offers the alluring prospect of exploiting companies that are non-traditional fighter manufacturers to think outside the box, and to, perhaps like the UK’s Tempest programme, see the air vehicle as effectively disposable while the modularised systems endure through a number of airframe iterations. Such companies could include the likes of Scaled Composites (assuming it can stay relatively independent of its Northrop Grumman NOC owners…), Space X and even companies from non-aerospace specialisations such as Formula One motor racing and other Hi-Tech fields – perhaps in loose consortia. This way, the platform can change rapidly in terms of capability to meet the needs of an Air Force facing an ever more volatile world and increasingly capable enemies. John Boyd’s mantra of ‘tempo’ remains a truism — the West must show itself to be better equipped to decide and act quicker to maintain a credible deterrence.
Certainly, Roper’s past hints at him being an innovator and lateral thinker. His role immediately prior to his current position was as the director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), where he oversaw an annual budget increase from $50million to $1.5Bn in less than a decade. The SCO majored on programmes that looked at hypersonic weapons, autonomy, ‘big-sensing’, 3D printing and the novel use of drones, including swarming. He therefore seems like the ideal person to steer the NGAD out of the ‘Black’ and further into the ‘Grey’ of Washington and Air Force politics.