Next Generation Combat Aircraft: Threat Outlook and Potential Solutions

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The prototype UCAV 'Taranis' on flight trials. Courtesy of BAE Systems

This Occasional Paper examines the efforts underway in the UK, France, Germany and the US to produce new combat aircraft and systems over the next fifteen to twenty years; sheds light on some of the challenges and drivers; and suggests some potential options for force optimisation

Three key features of future high-intensity conflict are likely to shape the requirements of next generation combat-air systems.

  • Firstly, the increasing density, variety, and resolution of sensors, coupled with powerful post-processing analysis techniques, will make it harder to enter contested airspace undetected. Being difficult to track and target (stealth) will remain valuable, but other elements of the survivability equation – such as speed, agility, electronic warfare, and sufficient combat mass to absorb attrition – may well regain some of their traditional importance.
  • Secondly, currently cutting-edge surface-to-air missile systems and sensors will proliferate from Russia and China to countries currently considered to be sub-peer opponents. This will raise the risk and potential costs of air operations overseas. Russia is currently, and will likely remain for several decades, the source of the most capable ground-based air defence systems, as well as electronic-warfare capabilities which can significantly degrade NATO networks and sensors. However, China is emerging as the more potentially worrying source of future combat aircraft which might pose a threat to Western types.
  • Thirdly, crucial enablers for combat aircraft such as large prepared airfields/aircraft carriers, aerial refuelling tankers, and the aviation fuel, spare parts, consumables, and munitions supplies on which sustained operations depend will be at risk from both kinetic and asymmetric attacks, including hypersonic missiles, at much longer distances away from the traditional battlespace than ever before.

Western air forces and politicians have grown used to air operations in low-threat environments with negligible loss rates since 1991. However, attrition from combat losses in the air and potentially due to direct attacks on bases is likely to be a significant feature in any future high-intensity conflict. Being prepared to credibly oppose Russian armed aggression is a core planning assumption for NATO, meaning the fragility of current European air forces due to insufficient combat mass is a cause for concern.

European combat-aircraft manufacturing countries all have reasons to participate in the development of next generation combat air systems. However, all have different force renewal timelines and pressures, operational priorities, and strategic outlooks. Collaboration will be critical for success given the individually small numbers of platforms which countries can afford to order, and the need to avoid a repeat of Eurofighter and Rafale’s mutually harmful competition for exports.

Due to a variety of political, ethical, and practical factors examined in this paper, operational requirements short of high-intensity, existential conflict are likely to continue to require manned combat aircraft for the foreseeable future. However, the pursuit of overmatch against all potential threats could leave future manned fighters too expensive and prone to programme risk to acquire in the required timeframe and cost boundaries.

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) offer a number of key advantages in high-intensity conflict scenarios, including expendability, comparative simplicity of manufacture, and combat endurance. Since UCAVs do not have to be flown regularly and in large numbers to maintain an aircrew cadre, they can be produced in relatively small numbers and regularly upgraded and iteratively improved as the threat picture changes over time, while still representing a potent combat asset. However, there could be political and legal sensitivities around their development in peacetime, since for use in high-intensity warfighting they must be capable of automatic threat recognition, targeting, and lethal weapons release if datalinks are jammed.

A mix of next generation manned combat aircraft limited to a modest level of technological ambition beyond the capabilities offered by current fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 and F-22, coupled with a stable of regularly evolving UCAVs in low-rate production, could offer both a way to rapidly expand NATO airpower if a crisis appeared imminent, and in a worst-case scenario at least offer a latent capability to replace losses and draw the worst attrition away from scarce manned assets in a high-intensity conflict. A UCAV force would also offer an ongoing project which European combat aircraft manufacturers could more easily collaborate on without the political pressure to agree on a single manned type to procure at scale for half a century or more of future service, and which would provide ongoing work to maintain the skilled workforce and industrial capacity to produce combat aircraft in the long term.


Professor Justin Bronk

Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology

Military Sciences

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