By Dr Sanu Kainikara

In the past few decades, air power, and its application as a weapon of war or force projection capability has seen an enormous improvement in capabilities. In keeping with the current global ethos of avoiding excessive use of force while fighting a war, air power now has the ability to deliver extreme destructive power with precision, proportionality, and discrimination. Based on this capability, air forces have also developed into deterrent and coercive forces second to none. Considering that the military employment of air power is only a century old, these are great achievements. Even so, military forces are continually looking to improve their effectiveness through fine-tuning already sharp force application capabilities. This brings out the question—how much more effective can air power become?

The answer is not straightforward, and the term ‘effectiveness’ needs to be understood in a nuanced manner to arrive at a reasonably argued answer. Effectiveness—the ability to serve the purpose or produce the intended or expected result—in air power terms involves not only the ability to create the necessary effect but to do it while minimising the chances of own forces being placed in danger. Therefore, the increasing efficacy of the application of air power should be tempered with ensuring that the safety of own forces is also assured to a minimum accepted level. This dual requirement led to the development of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have now become armed with precision strike weapons to become uninhabited combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), a misinterpretation of the word ‘combat’.

The X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle technology demonstrator on its sixth flight on Dec. 19, 2002. (Source: Wikimedia)

The introduction of UCAVs into the battlespace opened a hitherto unknown and uninvestigated arena of military operations. Not only were there technological hurdles to overcome, but a whole plethora of moral, ethical, and legal aspects of warfare also started to be questioned. In the beginning, the UAVs were considered to be purely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, which could be employed in benign airspaces where long-term ISR collection was required. By arming them, the technologically advanced military forces changed the existing equation of applying lethal force.

Going back to the primary reason for the introduction of UAVs, the need to safeguard one’s own combatants, there should be no argument regarding the arming of these vehicles. However, the so-called ‘drone strike’, a misnomer if ever there was one, has become an emotive issue not only with the people at the receiving end of the strike but also with the ‘politically correct’ media. Why is this so? Before analysing this, it must be stated here that an air strike can now be carried out with equal efficiency and precision by either a manned fighter or a UCAV. The only difference is that the human in the decision-making loop that permits the release of the weapon is placed at different places in each case. In the case of the manned fighter, the human is at the sharp end of the loop whereas, in the case of a UCAV, the human is almost at the beginning of the loop. In other words, in one case the human is placed in immediate danger while in the other, there is no danger to the human from the repercussions of the actions that are being initiated.

If there is no danger to own forces in the second case then why is there such a hue and cry regarding strikes carried out by UCAVs? Here, the survivability of the UCAV in a contested airspace, because of its low speed, restricted manoeuvrability, and lack of self-protection measures, is not being analysed since it is extraneous to this discussion. The fundamental reason for the discomfiture with the use of UCAVs is the fact that in the majority of cases, the opposing parties do not have air power capabilities and therefore such strikes are considered unethical. When the instances of collateral damage are added to the dialogue, the pendulum of public opinion decisively swings away from the use of UCAVs and air power. The real reason, however, is that in most of the Western democratic nations, the public opinion regarding national security and the employment of defence forces has been dominated by left-wing, anti-war groups. Once again, this discussion does not need to go into political debates and is curtailed here.

HTV-2 on the upper stage of the launch vehicle after jettisoning of the payload fairing. (Source: Wikimedia)

So, what is going to be the next breakthrough in terms of air power efficacy? Currently, the accuracy achieved by air-launched weapons, the clarity of airborne ISR and the global reach of air transportation are such that no further improvement seems possible or warranted. There can definitely be improvements in the speed with which response options can be provided and delivered. The realm of hypersonic flight is already very close to becoming a reality.

The next step change in the functioning of air power and related systems will take place when artificial intelligence (AI) becomes operational and is accepted as such. This statement needs clarification. AI is already a reality in many applications. However, complete autonomy has not yet been granted to AI in the case of weapon release functions. It is also true that AI has already proven to be fail-proof when tested under controlled conditions. There are many reasons for AI not being granted complete autonomy—capable of individual thought and decision-making rather than a pre-programmed response—the fundamental one being the question whether it is ethical to permit a ‘machine’ to make the decision whether or not a human being is to be ‘killed’ or eliminated.

In the case of fully autonomous airborne systems, further complications arise. In combat situations would it be ethical for a manned fighter to be destroyed by a ‘machine’? Would it be possible to program the machine only to destroy another machine, and in that case, does it mean complete autonomy for the AI? The question of legality in the use of fully autonomous combat systems is another area that has not been clarified. In fact, the process of creating laws that could govern the use of AI has not even got under way, and there is certainty that under the current geopolitical environment, agreement will not be reached.

In these circumstances, where ethics are being questioned, and there is no legal coverage for its employment, it is highly unlikely that AI will be employed to its full capacity in the near to mid-term future. In turn, it would mean that developments in air power capabilities and more importantly in its application will remain curtailed for the foreseeable future. Yes, the missiles will go further; space will become more pervasive; airborne platforms will fly faster, compute solutions at a much more rapid pace; and air power will entrench its place as the first-choice weapon in the vanguard of power projection. However, these are but refinements of what air power already does. For example, when a hypersonic flight becomes a normal reality, how much more effective will air power become? A reasonable answer would be, not by very much from what it does now.

The future of air power is going to be the same as it is today unless the next step-change takes place—AI is going to be the next technology that elevates air power further into being the most potent capability that the human race has yet invented.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: A three-ship formation of F-22 Raptors flies over the Pacific Ocean 28 January 2009 as part of a deployment to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Raptors were deployed from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. (Source: Wikimedia)


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