All het up about the PLAAF’s J-20 5th generation fighter, are you?
Stuff and nonsense says David Axe, writing in the pages of the Diplomat – it’s all about the UAVs:
China is some distance behind the United States and other countries in bringing unmanned aircraft into military service. Why? ‘One possible obstacle is probably the engine enabling UAVs to stay in the air for long enough,’ Ding suggests. Propulsion has long vexed the PLAAF. To date, the Chinese aerospace industry hasn’t been able to produce its own high-performance engines. Most Chinese fighters, likely including the J-20, are powered by imported Russian AL-31F motors. For drone propulsion, Beijing is potentially using imported technology. If its UAV engines are indigenous, they probably come with serious limitations in performance and reliability.
‘Another obstacle probably is real-time, on-time delivery of precision photo imagery,’ Ding adds. There’s something in this, too. Beaming data from an airborne robot to other aircraft or stations on the ground requires a secure, reliable, high-bandwidth data-link, the design and maintenance of which challenges even the US military.
The command-and-control signals for UAVs operate on similar principles. If China is having problems receiving imagery from its drones, it’s probably having trouble controlling them, as well. The problem is compounded over long distances, as over-the-horizon UAV operations typically rely on space-based signal relays requiring extensive satellite infrastructure.
For this and other military uses, the Pentagon maintains hundreds of satellites. The PLA, by contrast, possesses just a dozen or so strictly-military spacecraft and several dozen others with mixed civilian and military applications. And while China has recently matched the United States in terms of the sheer number of space launches, its satellites are shorter-lived, so it would need to greatly exceed the US launch rate in order to cut the gap between Chinese and US space infrastructure. The space gap translates into an enduring UAV gap.
Far be it from me to diminish the contributory value of the unmanned aerial vehicle into the multi-dimensional battlespace. Persistent ISR and survivable precision strike in fiercely defended airspace are joyous things to have a monopoly on. And yet there is a tendency among military analysts and enthusiasts to focus on a Next New Thing, an innovation that renders all things that went before it obsolete.
The best example of this phenomenon was the strategic debate that followed the end of World War II, with the Air Force arguing that nuclear weapons would be the sole decisive element to winning any new war. In a statement that helped to ignite the so-called “Revolt of the Admirals,” then SecDef Louis Johnson said:
“There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.”
Sixty years of post-war history renders Secretary Johnson’s judgment a little ill-conceived, but it’s important to point out that in the context of annihilative total war such as the country had just experienced, it represented a studied opinion at the time.
This is not an exact analogue, of course: Part of the Navy’s objection to the Air Force’s strategic doctrine was that up-front nuking of enemy populations during a brushfire campaign was, well: Immoral. Still, in every generation are to be found those who have finally – at last! – discovered the way to defend the nation on the cheap, rendering infantry divisions and carrier strike groups a thing of the past. See also, Billy Mitchell. And yet every military generation continues to rediscover the advantages of boots on the ground and open sea lines of communication.
But it’s also axiomatic that for every capability a wise adversary devises a counter-capability, and the very advantage that Axe cites in his UAV triumphalism – the dominance of US satellites – can be turned into a disadvantage by an enemy with a determined ASAT capability.
So, with apologies to Mr. Axe, I’d like to see us continue to develop capabilities across the spectrum of battle rather than place all of our eggs in the UAV basket.