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Yet another thing drones would do better: escort surveillance planes

[Dec 31st Update: The US Navy is on it]

This is a little outside my wheelhouse, but when I read this article about a simulated encounter between Chinese J-11s and J-10s and Japanese P-3C Orion with F-15Js and SAM platforms.

An F-22 costs $150 million, I couldn’t find pricing for an F-15J, but the Korean variant costs $100 million so I assume the same ballpark. Thus the Japanese/American side in this conflict is flying three-quarters a billion dollars in hardware with 10 crew but the entire encounter was determined by long range missiles (that cost about half a million each).

Looking just at the escort role (in this story: $200 million in hardware and 4 crew), it seems like something that drones could take over easily. For comparison an Avenger drone 1 only goes a third as fast as the fighter jets, but at $15 million, it can more than keep up with the P-3C in the story and carry 3 tonnes of weapons. Avengers aren’t designed for air-to-air combat, but it isn’t hard to imagine a similar drone, optimized to carry long range air-to-air missiles that could carry 6-8 AIM-120 AMRAAM. An escort drone could even sacrifice stealth for lower cost or increased performance since the surveillance craft or transport that it would be escorting would light up the radar anyway and it would be preferable for any missile to hit the drone instead.

Arguably 4 drones with 24-32 missiles would also need far fewer pilots, as following another plane in formation is probably well within the capabilities of a drone. In the rare event of hostile action, more pilots could be pulled off more routine missions. Either some or all of the drones could peel off and participate in modern day dog-fighting — get missile lock, fire, repeat, and then try to evade missiles fired at you. Drones of course, could stand their ground and accept being blown up as the (much lower) cost of doing business. (As an added bonus, this suicidal charge is exactly when the missile performs best.)

There’s also the obvious question of whether short-range missiles will ever have a place in dog-fighting again (or if “dog-fighting” will ever happen again in any recognizable form) and why long range air-to-air missiles don’t get a fraction of the attention that the F-35 gets (except apparently, from the Russians). If all missiles have the same range, the faster planes still need to come to the slower drone in order to fine — negating much of the benefit of their speed.

I’m sure I’m missing something, but for the task of escorting a plane that can’t get over 400 knots, drones seem perfect.

  1. The Avenger is still under development, but this is just spitballing — fun fact: it has engines made in Canada!

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