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Vassily Lata

Doctor of War Science, Professor, Academician of the Russian Academy of War Sciences

Military aviation, unlike conventional arms — one of the oldest means of destroying an enemy’s bases, weaponry, military equipment and manpower — is a relatively new method of warfare. It was developed in the early 20th century, reaching its peak in the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. The evolution of military aviation these days consists mainly of updating existing fleets. We are unlikely to see any breakthrough technologies in this field in the next 50 to 60 years.

Military aviation, unlike conventional arms — one of the oldest means of destroying an enemy’s bases, weaponry, military equipment and manpower — is a relatively new method of warfare. It was developed in the early 20th century, reaching its peak in the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. The evolution of military aviation these days consists mainly of updating existing fleets. We are unlikely to see any breakthrough technologies in this field in the next 50 to 60 years.

Factors that Determine How Military Aviation will Change in the 21st Century

Two factors could influence the development of military aviation over the next 100 years.

Firstly, in the near and medium term, aviation will develop as a result of changing attitudes towards the use of military force in global and regional wars, and towards the scenarios for carrying out armed conflict.

An analysis of the doctrinal provisions that establish the procedures for deploying U.S. and NATO armed forces allows us to draw some conclusions as to the possible scenarios that could lead to large-scale military action in the foreseeable future. In accordance with the Global Strike concept, the United States Strategic Command has developed CONPLAN 8022. This is an updated version of the Single Integrated Operational Plan that allows for conventional and nuclear strikes (including pre-emptive strikes) to be launched, in extreme conditions, on government and military buildings, troops (forces), air defence systems and munitions production and storage facilities of the supposed enemy. According to CONPLAN 8022, the United States has two principle courses of action in terms of its strategic offensive forces.

Over the next 20–30 years, operational and tactical missions will be carried out primarily by the air forces. After that, however, the role of military aviation will fade away completely.

Over the next 20–30 years, operational and tactical missions will be carried out primarily by the air forces. After that, however, the role of military aviation will fade away completely.

The first course of action is to launch a series of coordinated strikes (including nuclear strikes) to counter imminent threats from enemy states with weapons of mass destruction to the United States and its allies.

The second course of action is to launch selective strikes on highly secure and subsurface nuclear facilities, as well as other key infrastructural objects, in countries that pose a threat to the United States and its allies.

It is generally believed that the success of a military operation greatly depends on the time factor. The probable enemy, therefore, must place its stake on nuclear weapons, precision-guided munitions (PGM) and Weapons Based on New Physical Principles. Particular attention is paid to informational and cyber warfare. Regional wars today are primarily based on aerial warfare. Over the next 20—30 years, operational and tactical missions will be carried out primarily by the air forces. After that, however, the role of military aviation will disappear completely. In the longer term, it will also have a reduced role in a limited war.

F-22 Raptor

Twenty years from now, propaganda campaigns aimed at discrediting the political course followed by antagonistic states will have increased significance, painting an “image of the enemy” among the general population and drumming up comprehensive support for military action. If in the previous century the primary goal of military operations was to achieve aerial dominance, then in this century special attention will be paid to carrying out informational warfare with the aim of gaining superiority in command and control and suppressing the armed forces and general population of the opposing side both emotionally and psychologically. Economic blockades will be set up, and intensive high-precision strikes will be launched on key objects of the economy in order to destabilize the country’s entire life-support system.

Secondly, the development of military aviation will surely be linked to scientific and technological progress, which is determined by the capabilities and potential of the state. Strong pressure will be placed on the enemy (via demonstrative strikes, for example) to deter them from engaging in an armed confrontation and force them to accept the conditions put forward without the need for war. But such a situation is only possible if one side has absolute technological superiority over the other in science-intensive types of weapons — space, missiles, information — which is only within the capabilities of developed countries.

An analysis of the wars and armed conflicts that have taken place at the beginning of the 21st century suggests that sixth generation warfare is the future of large-scale combat. New types of high-precision weapons will be key to these wars — weapons which are almost as effective as nuclear weapons, but do not have the same destructive consequences, particularly for the environment. As for nuclear weapons, they are no longer thought of as for the battleground, but rather as a deterrent to aggressors from launching an attack. The threat potential will gradually move to space. This will serve as a serious destabilizing factor and will lead to one of the sides abruptly gaining the upper hand over the other, as well as to fundamental changes to the nature of warfare. Growing amounts of space technology have already sparked competition among leading world powers for strategic positions within the Earth’s orbit. The trends outlined above will also determine the future of military aviation.

The Role and Place of Military Aviation in the 20th Century and the Trends that Could Lead to its Qualitative Development in the 21st Century

Military aviation will be replaced by high-precision weapons, which will be controlled by space systems.

Military aviation will be replaced by high-precision weapons, which will be controlled by space systems.

We should note here that, in the future, the means of warfare will not always be formed upon objective laws and their development. The appearance of nuclear missiles in the middle of the 20th century meant that the role of military aviation fell sharply and underwent significant changes. By the end of the 1990s, the growing tendency towards strategic offensive arms reduction forced people to start thinking once again about the need to develop military aviation. The idea was “cultivated” in the early 2000s, with aerial demonstrations of military aircraft being put on for heads of state being a big part of this (the same methods are used today for showcasing aerospace defence capabilities). Unfortunately, the scientific priorities for the long-term development of the Russian armed forces were not determined at the end of the 20th century or the beginning of the 21st century. The restructuring came down to reducing the number of units and commands, and turning them into brigades. If at the end of the 20th century military aviation of the 21st century was expected to be a formidable weapon with stealth aircraft as part of its strategic bombardment capabilities, then today it has faded into the background. The only plans for the near future are the development of heavy multipurpose long-range tactical aircraft (the T-50 and Su-35 fighters could replace the heavy MiG-31 and Su-27 interceptors), primarily at the expense of modernization. And this does not even take into account the fact that, in the future, as we noted in the above analysis, wars that do not even involve physical combat could become the norm. In such instances, the role of tactical aviation will be minimal.


How can these tendencies in the development of military aviation be explained? First of all, the emphasis on upgrading existing technology can be put down to a number of complex and interrelated factors, such as high production costs and structural materials, as well as difficulties transitioning to new types of fuel. In addition, military aviation will develop alongside civil aviation and dual-purpose technologies. At the same time, we need to keep in mind the fact that military aviation will remain the driving force behind technological superiority in civil aviation. This is the way it has always been at least. And this is how it should be, as it is related to national security. So we cannot rule out the fact that innovative breakthroughs could be made this century.

That being said, we cannot say with any certainty that such a breakthrough will be in military aviation. The sphere of military actions is already being shifted to near-Earth space. It would be safe to assume, therefore, that we could see the development of a means of aerospace attack whereby the weapon in question would be able to pass between the atmosphere and space. Such a weapon would play a decisive role. What is more, it would be an unmanned aerospace vehicle and would be a part of the Strategic Missile Forces, rather than military aviation in the traditional sense. We are talking, first of all, about ballistic missiles and combat at altitudes of 40—100 kilometres and about hypersonic aircraft and cruise missiles. But this will only happen during the second half of the 20th century, when rocket and space systems will replace aeronautic military aviation. At the same time, unmanned passenger jets may appear which, in reality, will be unmanned passenger spacecraft.

Thus, military aviation will be replaced by high-precision weapons, which will be controlled by space systems. We will see a repeat of the situation that military aviation found itself in following the Second World War, when it was unable to carry out all the tasks that modern warfare required of it. Today, the pilot does not act in isolation, but rather as part of an extensive interactive system that includes radar warning systems and experts and analysts on the ground. The development of military and technical systems will eventually lead to a time when aircraft will no longer be piloted, and personnel aboard the vehicle will fulfil the role of researcher.

Prospects for the Development of Military Aviation in the 21st Century and Possible Problems

The expert community has quite rightly asked the question: What will happen to military aviation in the first half of the 21st century?

To start with, the latest achievements in the field of military aircraft engineering will continue to be implemented throughout the first half of the 21st century. The most important areas for the development of this field will be supersonic and hypersonic aircraft, unmanned vehicles and fourth- and fifth-generation jet planes. Integrated solutions to reduce the visibility of aerial attacks (“stealth attacks”) will be developed. This technology is included in the list of priority areas for the development of aerospace systems in the United States, which is expected to have a significant impact on the appearance of aircraft in the future. A number of stealth attack fighters have been created or in development, including the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the multirole Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II tactical fighters, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit strategic bomber, the Northrop Grumman X-47A Pegasus and Boeing X-45 unmanned combat aerial vehicles and the Boeing–Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche attack helicopter. The most recent solutions that are used as the basis for their construction have helped reduce the visibility of aircraft on radar, infrared and optical and acoustic wave detection systems.

It should be noted that equally sophisticated and innovative counter-technologies are being developed at a similarly rapid pace, thus rendering the supposed advantages of stealth technology practically useless. Such technologies are being developed by the United Kingdom France, Germany and other countries, all with an eye to gaining military and technical supremacy.

UAV launch

The use of counter-technology proves the hopelessness of military aviation in the longer term.

Another supposedly promising area in aviation technology development is the creation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These include, above all, unmanned “planes” and vertical take-off and landing UAVs. Over the past ten years, the possible applications of using such vehicles have grown significantly, which has led to the rigorous development of various UAV concepts. There is huge potential here for determining what aviation of the future will look like. Planes are being replaced by instruments, which cannot strictly be called part of military aviation.

Unmanned aerial vehicles differ in terms configuration and their tactical, geometric and other characteristics, as well as by the types and parameters of the engine and targeting instruments. Currently, UAVs are used almost exclusively in the military sector, although they would be especially effective in the Russian civil sector in terms of monitoring the extensive transport, energy and communications infrastructure.

Right now, around 300 UAV projects are in development around the world, with research teams working on intelligence and reconnaissance and strike vehicles. Such vehicles have a number of significant advantages over manned aircraft, including: the ability to fly at extremely low altitudes and in ground folds and employ active and passive radar jamming, their high manoeuvrability and reduced radio visibility, and the level of infrared radiation and acoustic noise. All this allows unmanned aerial vehicles to overcome aerial defence systems.

UAVs are also used to combat various means of aerial attack, a kind of “counter-technology”. Equipped with radar systems, they are able to detect low-flying targets that are not detectable by conventional radar technologies. UAVs can be used to assist aerial defence systems, ground other kinds of forces, and to perform reconnaissance. It stands to reason, therefore, that unmanned aerial vehicles will replace fighter aircraft.

In the longer term, we can expect to see hypersonic aerial vehicles and propulsion systems instead of the various types of tactical “military aircraft” that are used to carry out army and frontline operations. In the future, we will see the development of different types of long- and short-range guided missiles on the basis of these innovations, and they will be much cheaper to build and operate than planes. Manned systems may also appear, which would not be a basis for aviation either, but rather for rocket and missile engineering of the future. And if this is a real possibility in missile engineering, then the creation of a strategic bomber in the field of aircraft construction would require that the technological groundwork for a breakthrough in numerous industries had been laid. First and foremost, we need to see a qualitative leap being made in the development and industrial production of fundamentally new alloys and polymers. New materials with properties that are unheard of today would help take us to a completely new level of design in engine and aircraft building. In order for this to happen, we must first find the solutions to a whole range of problems, particularly with regard to developing a high-performance engine that is rugged enough to handle hypersonic speeds. Existing technologies are simply insufficient to carry us forwards. Unfortunately, they are all we have. The programme to create a new strategic bomber, which has been set for completion by 2025—2030, but may take much longer, will be mostly conceptual and exploratory in nature and may have little to do with the eventual “aircraft” other than in terms of its appearance. In actual fact, it will not be a plane — it will be a rocket aircraft. It could be equipped with a hydrogen-powered hypersonic ramjet capable of reaching speeds of up to 11,000 km/h, or roughly Mach 10 (10 times the speed of sound). Such technology could shorten flight times significantly and make launching space modules far cheaper. We are talking here about hypersonic aerial vehicles, such as “hypersonic bombers” capable of reaching speeds of Mach 10—20. But the question arises here: Will such an aircraft be considered a part of military aviation? Or will it be a new type of aerial “bombing device” that belongs to the long-range “high-precision weapon” class of missile technology?

Photo: Adept Scientific

Fifth-generation jet fighters are characterized by multi-functionality, low observability on radar and infrared scanners, automated control systems integrating the aircraft itself and the weapons it carries, and super manoeuvrability. Next generation planes must be able to supercruise; however, if we do not have an engine that is up to the task, then this will be impossible in both the short- and longer-term. Not a single existing engine is capable of supersonic flight without the help of afterburners.

A prototype for a fifth-generation engine has purportedly been developed in Russia — the model 117C. The design is based on a thorough modification of the AL-31F engine, which has been in operation for some time and has demonstrated superior performance. It is in many respects very close to being a fifth-generation engine. But the 117C is nevertheless the result of modernizing an existing model, rather than a fundamentally new design. And if we are talking about military aviation at the end of the 21st century, then it is yesterday’s news.

Right now there are two fifth-generation engines in existence: the American F119-PW-100, which is produced for the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor heavy fighter; and the F135 family of engines designed for the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II light fighter. The Americans have spent great efforts to overcome a range of organizational and engineering difficulties and promote their F-35 models, investing billions of dollars in the process. Three thousand models of the fifth-generation fighter are set to be produced and delivered to a host of countries, replacing the F-16 models that have been the staple of U.S. Air Force’s fleet, and those of its allies, since it was cleared for production in the 1970s. Even in the medium term, Russia has nothing that can match the F-35 and replace its outdated MiG-29 model. This once again confirms the hopelessness of military aviation, which is lagging farther and farther behind development in the field of space engineering and technology as we move into the future. What is more, unlike missile and space technology, aviation has never been a means of solving political problems. The only reason that it will develop is because huge amounts of money have been invested into it, and it will have a long market life.

Given the growing concern about environment problems, aircraft designers envision the aerial vehicle of the future, above all, in terms of “green” technologies, that is, it has to produce very little noise and emit the bare minimum. In addition, it must be highly economical, flexible in terms of its interior design and comfortable.

The idea of achieving “super heights” in air flight has inspired generations of aircraft engineers to reach greater and greater elevation levels. And it remains a serious challenge today. The concept that has gained the most traction in terms of its potential to meet this challenge is that of a ballistic rocket aircraft.

Photo: Popular Mechanics
Rocket-powered fighter aircraft “Shell", layout
scheme, USSR, 50-60

To date, not a single manned plane has reached heights greater than 40 kilometres. This is because, in order to fly, conventional planes need an aerodynamic lift force created by air flows on a bearing area – wings, which are necessary for all aerodynamic aircraft. The magnitude of the aerodynamic lift force depends on the density of the surrounding air. A fundamentally different type of flight is required for planes to reach extremely high altitudes, one that does not use air.

The clear superiority of ballistic missiles in terms of the heights and speeds they can reach has prompted engineers to create a concept for new manned vehicles (but not planes) based on recent achievements in missile technology. These vehicles will be able to travel at high speeds and at great altitudes.

A ballistic rocket plane will be able to reach hypersonic speeds of up to 20,000 km/h or greater, which is simply out of reach for modern rocket planes. In terms of flight range, it also outperforms ballistic rockets. This is another area confirming that military aviation is transforming into an aerospace military system.

This is why it is extremely difficult to say what military aviation will look like 100 years from now. It is more or less possible to predict the course of its development in the first half of the 21st century. But just how it will look in the following 50 years — whether it continues to exist as “military aviation”, or transmute into an aerospace system for military purposes — is open to debate…

What we can say with some degree of certainty is that military aviation in the traditional sense will cease to exist. We will see completely new aerospace systems that are unlike anything we have seen before in military aviation. Aviation will be replaced by reusable aerial vehicles with ion engines. We could see engines that use the magnetic force of the poles, which would make it possible at the beginning of the 22nd century to fly long distances in short amounts of time. I’d like to believe that this is how it will be in 100 years.

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