Future of Aerial Warfare — Journey from Platforms Mindset to Capabilities Mindset

One major component of futuristic warfare is the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for ISR and a wide range of more strategic and critical roles, including air-to-ground strikes and electronic warfare

Show: Aero India 2023 - Day 3
(Left) A model of AMCA the advanced medium combat aircraft; (Right) TAPAS is a MALE UAV with an operating altitude of 30,000 ft and a range of 250 kms.

Aerial warfare refers to the use of military aircraft and other air-based platforms in warfare including bombers, gliders, helicopters as well as military transport aircraft. However, today the entire ecosystem has evolved towards unmanned platforms. In yesteryears, the number of aircraft and other platforms had a large significance. Today, there is a lot of focus on acquiring capabilities that can enhance multi-fold the efficiency of the same number of platforms. Almost all countries today are looking at leveraging technology to the maximum within the limited budget boundaries. The future of aerial warfare is hence likely to be shaped and sliced through exponential advances in technology in this decade and in times to come. These changes are organic i.e. as a natural evolution, as well as are also driven by changes in the global political and security environment i.e. being fast tracked to meet futuristic demand.

One major component of futuristic warfare is the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). What arguably started as a platform to be leveraged for reconnaissance and surveillance, UAVs are now developed for a wide range of more strategic and critical roles, including air-to-ground strikes and electronic warfare. Seen as a cost-effective way of carrying out military operations due to the remote operational capability, the life of a soldier is the clear benefit. Today, there are enough and more companies in India itself who work towards innovations in the UAV segment. DRDO as the R&D wing of India's defence ecosystem has demonstrated indigenous ability in carrying out missions with a fully operational decentralised swarm of 25 drones in assorted formations (drone swarms) wherein the drones are capable of distributive sensing and autonomous decision-making. Unmanned aerial vehicles today are gradually evolving into major deterrents as well as a major avenue for offensive operations. DRDO has also successfully demonstrated capabilities in stealth combat drone through the demonstrator called "Stealth Wing Flying Testbed". The airframe, undercarriage and entire flight control and avionics systems have reportedly been indigenously developed. UAVs are no doubt a very critical component when it comes to the evolution of aerial warfare in the coming decades. The shape, form and impact may vary but fundamentally unmanned systems are the future.

Another important development that has lent a huge credibility to the potency of forces around the world as well as India is the development of hypersonic weapons. These are weapons that travel at speeds of more than 5x times the speed of sound evading most current air defence systems to a very large extent. They are seen as a potential game-changer in warfare and are hence being developed by a number of countries, including the US, Russia, and China. DRDO has also successfully demonstrated hypersonic air breathing scramjet technologies through its hypersonic technology demonstration vehicle (HSTDV) in 2020. Launched using an indigenously developed scramjet propulsion system, the vehicle achieved speed up to Mach 6. DRDO is also reportedly working on BrahMos- II hypersonic anti-ship missile making it twice as fast as BrahMos-I with range reportedly going up to 1,000 kms.

UAVs along with hypersonic platforms and weapons when combined with stealth are a lethal combination. The development of stealth is therefore another gamechanging element that can prove decisive in futuristic aerial warfare. Stealth technology makes it difficult for sensors and radars to detect an aircraft thereby making it harder for enemy air defences to engage them. An immensely sophisticated application, stealth is a function of multiple variables including materials, metallurgy, machining and airframe structure. DRDO has been working on developing stealth technology including development of radar absorbent materials and shaping techniques that can reduce an aircraft's radar cross-section. More recently, DRDO also developed an advanced composite material for the airframe of the AMCA, which is India's fifth generation stealth, multi-role air superiority fighter aircraft currently being planned for advanced design and prototype development in the near future.

While fighter aircraft, missiles and UAVs are parallelly being designed, developed and manufactured, an important element for all aerial platforms is aero engines. For India, aero engines have unanimously been called out as a major lacunae and multiple options are currently being evaluated and deliberated towards. Having an indigenous ecosystem for aero engine development across the entire spectrum of small engines for UAVs and missiles as well as large engines for fighter and transport aircraft, is an immediate priority area. All relevant stakeholders including public and private entities are making efforts towards having the desired capabilities and capacities for aero engines. India's aerial warfare is significantly dependent on engines availability and supply chain shocks due to various factors can make a huge dent in defence preparedness. Hence for India's future of aerial warfare, engines are as critical a factor as any other. Advanced engines such as 'Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (ADVENT)' can reportedly allow for longer ranges as well as higher performance by varying their by-pass ratios for optimum efficiency in flight as well. The ADVENT aircraft engine development programme being pursued in the US is reflective of technology advancements that are required even on legacy systems for them to be state of the art when it comes to aerial warfare.

While the above are references to the hard segments of aerial warfare, what is equally important are the soft aspects including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain and Machine Learning (ML). The future of aerial warfare will be equally impacted by the growing use of AI-ML as well. These technologies enable aircraft to make decisions and carry out actions autonomously, thereby increasing their effectiveness and reducing risk to pilots. AI-ML also help in analysing large amounts of data from sensors and cameras on aircraft thereby improving situational awareness and target identification. Blockchain, for its part is another critical development, wherein as one of its key application areas, the serviceability of aircraft can always be kept in check. Utilising predictive maintenance as a key catalyst, the spares availability and MRO schedule as well as planning for contingencies for aircraft can be very well enabled.

As the IAF continues its journey from being platform driven to being more capability-driven, network-centric operations will be key going forward. It is important that lessons are imbibed from the LCA programme and the Kaveri programme and it is ensured that the learning curve is steep enough to ensure 2x times capabilities in 0.5x time frame going forward. While the Russia-Ukraine war may allow for contradictions to the fact that future conflicts will largely be short, swift and decisive – the former is in all probability just an exception and not the rule. Hence for meeting a swift threat or challenge it is important to keep all deterrence as well as offensive capabilities well-oiled and as advanced as any other across the globe. R&D again plays a very important role and with DRDO as the flagbearer and with industry gathering steam, the coming 8-10 years are poised to be a huge watershed period for India in aerial warfare.