Changing Tactics: Swarm and air power

David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla in the early 2000s discussed as part of Network-centric Warfare the concept of swarming. Large scale forces working autonomously with heightened capacity but perhaps lower cost and capability are able to work effectively against opponents. You might recognize this tactic as what the Somali pirates and the war lords in the famous book “Black Hawk Down” have used. The capacity for relatively powerless entities to use fairly simplistic tactics for strategic advantage is very well documented. As Arquilla and Ronfeldt discussed swarming has been used to great effect by the Marine Corps and others. Why not build an aircraft that allowed for swarming?

In this current budgetary crisis where one F35 fighter is approaching $200 million dollars each (some reports say it actually $300 million each) and we have pilots sitting in the ready room with no aircraft to fly let’s change the model. The Global Hawk is over $200 million each and a Predator is reportedly $5 or 10 million each. We’ll have to give up some capabilities, but we’ll in aggregate get some strategic capacity. I’m thinking it is time we start punching out $1.5 million dollar fighter jets by the thousands with some very specific characteristics.

  • There is a huge backlog of technologies and capacities for mass production items that are 80 percent solution sets (this is a known as stated in congressional testimony without specifics).
  • An aircraft that is sub-mach gives up some capacity but most fighter aircraft spend their time well below mach except in specific tactical engagements.
  • The ability to be multi-capability is more important than 99th percentile capability.
  • Production in volume is a proven technique that can overcome limitations of design (example Liberty Ships).

To be sure I don’t know nothing about the Air Force. I know zip. Zero. I have no freaking clue. Get it? I got this hair brained idea watching old episodes of RoboTech with my kids and how the Invid were able to take out the Humans in aggregate even though they fail at the individual level. It is simply a capacity to inflict damage 60 percent of the time with 300 percent of the adversary numbers in your favor. Even at those ratios a weapons systems at 5 percent of the cost is going to be cheaper. This path also leads to resilience. I see the requirements for such a weapons system and some viable technologies:

  • Use extruded high strength plastic (bullet proof and stronger than steel) for rapid construction of fuselages and wing surfaces
  • Use high speed mass produced autonomous actuators and production (COTS) vehicle systems for controls and instruments.
  • All pieces must be part of standardized, modularized, and configurable weapons systems (so engines are a box that goes there with these three connectors, guns go there with these two connections, missiles attach there… ).
  • Pilot survival is a factor of agility (this thing had better be light) and up-armored pilot module based on threat profile (we ask Marines to take over countries in HumVees with no doors pilots can fly thin skinned flying machines).
  • The aircraft design process should use an agile and competitive “instant bid process” (3 days to gather requirements, 2 days to finalize them).
  • The winning design should be an x-prize style process. If a thousand of these were bought it would be an increase on current capability and be an order of magnitude less cost than the current F35 project.

I know that there have been discussions in Air Force corners about this very concept, but I’m not sure why it doesn’t get much traction. This is a process that uses known manufacturing processes, builds a great weapons system, has high production value and low risk, and in a constrained requirements environment will result in a superior air craft. I know that there is a reason to have an aircraft that flies backwards, but other than looking cool how often is that capability going to be used? Money is an issue and this is one way to get more capability and capacity to kill people and break things and it would cost significantly less.

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