In this setting, sensor and image recognition technologies have advanced to the point where aircraft have a hard time operating undetected for any length of time. What radar doesn't catch, air defense drones screening the population centers will. Since UAVs are commonplace and easy to build, any major settlement by necessity has systems in place to efficiently deal with a medium to large volume of unauthorized air traffic. This includes jamming and command spoofing as well as hard-kill measures.
In times of conflict, the combination of easy detection (making BVR* kills the norm) and the ubiquity of AA weapons has made the battlefield an exceedingly hostile place for "traditional" fighter/multi-role aircraft. While superior ECM and armaments allow them to quickly destroy a large number of drones, the sheer volume of return fire from ground installations makes surviving the engagement highly unlikely. Needless to say, losing your fighters is rather expensive.
(*beyond visual range)
The job of suppressing air defenses falls mostly to groups of heavy ground vehicles carrying short-range point defenses (e.g. lasers, 20mm cannons) that provide a sufficient defense against drones, anti-tank missiles and most kinds of artillery. However, while effective, these ground vehicles are also rather slow, especially since difficult terrain is very common, and restricting air strikes to areas that your ground forces have already secured kind of defeats the point.
Given the above scenario, a low altitude ground attack aircraft seems like a viable alternative. It would operate primarily at subsonic speeds and utilize terrain to hide its approach. Missions would include close air support and suppression of enemy air defenses.
- VTOL and hovering capabilities
- Sufficiently armored to withstand point defense fire (i.e. tougher than a drone)
- Sufficient operational range to reach enemy air defenses and return
- Harder to detect than other aircraft
- Significantly more mobile than a ground vehicle
- Significantly cheaper than a barrage of cruise missiles
- Can take out enemy air defenses ahead of the main force
Does this design seem viable? Specifically, is it cost effective or am I missing a clearly superior alternative?
Bonus points for pointing out a specific technology that would tip the scale clearly in one direction or the other.
A typical point defense system in this setting weighs around 2t, including sensors and a 20mm revolver cannon capable of firing ~3500 rounds per minute, but excluding the power supply. It is able to reliably hit most hyper-velocity projectiles, though only at ranges below 1km.
Directed energy weapons are typically heavier and similarly limited in kill range, but more cost effective when dealing with a large number of individual threats.
Ground vehicles designed to operate without direct air support usually carry at least one of these systems, often in combination with short range SAM and/or a limited number of support/spotter drones.
Electronic warfare plays a central role in any conflict. As a rule of thumb, any (EW capable) vehicle or installation at least an order of magnitude heavier than its opponent has sufficient processing power and energy output to completely suppress or incapacitate the target. Under these conditions, manned vehicles are still capable of operating at reduced efficiency, while AI act erroneously or fall back to a fail-safe mode.