Is a "Missile Truck" the Solution to One of the Scariest Wargames Ever?
In August 2008, the RAND Corporation joined military leaders at Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii for a wargame entitled “Pacific Vision.” The exercise was meant to identify the capabilities U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) would need to prevail against potential threats in the Asia-Pacific region through 2016. At least one of the scenarios examined in the wargame was truly frightening.
As Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security recently summarized in an op-ed for The National Interest:
[The RAND study] analyzed a U.S.-China air war over Taiwan made the bold assumption that every air-to-air missile fired from a U.S. F-22 hit a Chinese fighter (100 percent kill rate) and that every Chinese missile missed the U.S. F-22s (0 percent kill rate). In their simulation, the United States still lost the fight. The F-22s ran out of missiles and the Chinese fighters were able to go after vulnerable tankers and command and control aircraft. A far more detailed simulation the following year showed the same results. Even though U.S. F-22s were pegged with a 27-to-1 qualitative advantage over Chinese fighters, their diminished numbers and the fact that they had to fight from long range meant the Chinese had vastly superior numbers and won the fight.
The RAND study emphasized that improvements in forward basing infrastructure were necessary for U.S. airpower to achieve its objective effectively.
But in a new report from CNAS, “Robotics on the Battlefield Part II: The Coming Swarm,” Scharre offers another solution to mitigate China’s numerical advantage – an unmanned “missile truck” fighter:
An uninhabited “missile truck” that brought additional air-to-air missiles to the fight to supplement human-inhabited F-22s could tip the scales back in the United States’ favor. Such an aircraft need not have the full performance characticeristics of a 5th or 6th generation fighter aircraft. It would only need to have sufficient stealth to get close enough to launch its missiles against Chinese fighters. If it then perished in the engagement, that would be acceptable provided it took a sufficient number of enemy fighters with it. It would still have accomplished the mission. The uninhabited aircraft would not need advanced autonomy, merely enough to fly in a straight line under a human’s control and sufficiently robust communications links for the human-inhabited F-22s to pass targeting data. All targeting and firing decisions would be made by the F-22 pilots. If such an aircraft could be built at relatively low costs, this uninhabited “loyal wing-man” could be a tremendous force multiplier for U.S. human-inhabited fighters.
In general, Scharre has argued that uninhabited and autonomous systems will be essential to maintaining U.S. military dominance. As he wrote recently for RealClearDefense:
Humans will still fight wars, but new technology will give combatants, as it always has, greater standoff from the enemy, survivability or lethality. Exploiting those advantages will depend principally on the ability to uncover the most innovative applications of robotic swarms, which will require not only increased resources but also an aggressive campaign of experimentation and technology development. Many of the underlying technologies behind increased autonomy are driven by commercial sector innovation, and as a result will be available to a wide range of state and non-state actors. In a world where some of the most-game changing technologies will be available to everyone, uncovering the best uses of that technology – and doing so urgently – will be vital to sustaining American military dominance.