The US Air Force has a new idea for reconnaissance in Chinese airspace. Forget the U2s, the SR-71s, the recon satellites- the future is in drone bugs, tiny, self-recharging, semi-autonomous UAVs, or so Air Force reps told the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual conference. The reasoning is simple: you can’t shoot down a swarm of bugs with an S-300 missile (and even if you could, you’d look pretty silly doing it).
I’ve argued elsewhere that drone technology is a Pandora’s box, not only or even primarily because of its ethical implications for warfare, privacy and government abuse, but rather because the more governments fund drones’ development, the more the technology will proliferate and come within economic reach of unstable regimes, terrorist groups and the general public- the latter is already happening in commercial applications. The smaller and lower-altitude the drone, the harder to contain or control it becomes, and self-sustaining insect drones are from this perspective just about the worst thing one could invent, precisely because they are likely to become cheap and widely accessible at some point.
Another question is in what circumstances this capability would be used. It is one thing to confine it to crisis situations, but to use it in peacetime would guarantee a similar response. Constant low-level drone warfare is not a good idea or a good precedent, especially between great powers.
Meanwhile, as Shane Bilsborough reiterates over at The Diplomat, China isn’t so very far behind in either drone warfare in particular or the field of information dominance in general. This should come as no surprise- the 1991 Gulf War was a tremendous wake-up call to a number of rising militaries, and the lessons of the information-age battlefield translated very quickly in China into a new set of command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) doctrine on the one hand, and a corresponding offensive doctrine to disrupt these capabilities in an attacking force. These trends are well-represented in the book Chinese Views of Future Warfare , an anthology of translated Chinese articles.
China regards electronic, cyber and space-based warfare as the new “high ground” of naval warfare, assuming the place that air power has held since the Second World War. For the cyberspace part, see Richard Stone’s in-depth account of China’s development of offensive cyber capabilities in the March 1st 2013 issue of Science Magazine. A second aspect of this trend is China’s development of a wide range of relevant equipment, including Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft such as the KJ-2000, which are believed to be a generation ahead of American AWACS in sensor capability. And of course, China has developed and is believed to be mass-producing a full range of drones, from small battlefield models up to Global Hawk equivalents. The latter are of particular concern if they should be used for naval strike. There are other, equally dangerous missions which have been tested in recent exercises, including disruption of enemy communications and facilitation of friendly ones. Target-finding and designation are equally important- as China’s array of long-range anti-ship missiles, including ballistic missiles, grows, finding and coordinating strikes against target vessels becomes a networked function. In addition, China now has a full range of surveillance satellites for situational awareness and soon, targeting functions.
In short, China is no pushover in any aspect of C4ISR, least of all drone warfare. Its one major problem is coordination and equipment compatibility between different branches, exacerbated by inter-service rivalries.
Back the United States, which is beginning to introduce a new generation of tactical network, Rockwell Collins’ Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT). The idea is to create a jamming-resistant, frequency-hopping, secure ad-hoc network over a large battlespace with long range and low latency. It is being installed on the E-2D Hawkeye AEW aircraft, the EA-18G Growler Electronic Warfare Aircraft, and is the control link for the X-47B carrier UCAV. In future, it may supplant current systems such as Link 16. The Growler installation is particularly interesting, since one of the touted abilities of the aircraft is to jam enemy communications links while maintaining friendly ones. The significance of TTNT is its presumed capability to resist electronic warfare measures, such as those China is keenly developing. One wonders how many ways the electromagnetic spectrum can be sliced and diced before becoming useless to everyone.
On a different note, James Holmes’ article in Foreign Policy (and related note at The Diplomat) does a good job highlighting some of the imponderables of China’s naval development, as well as some of the differences in naval thinking between China and the West.
I’m not one to wade into the debate over America’s future as a world power, but if you’re interested in the state of the issue from an academic perspective, here’s an article that summarises it fairly well.