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Background

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 problem

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.

The solution?

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.

Requirements:

  • 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

Advantages:

  • 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

My Question

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.

Clarifications

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.

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    $\begingroup$ Does a helicopter not meet all of your requirements? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 23 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ You are way behind the curve here: the US military (among others) has been doing very low-level attacks for decades. You might also read up on the Israeli destruction of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces in the 1967 war. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 23 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ Looks like you are looking for A-10 Warthog or A-64 Apache "on steroids". However, with AA systems you would rather want to target them from afar, without putting your multiple-use aircraft at risk. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 23 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ where did you get the idea of "suppressing air defenses [with] heavy ground vehicles"? Functioning air defenses = air superiority = ground vehicles will be bombed before they can reach AA sites. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 23 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Bald Bear - The ground vehicles are air defenses, if you will. If aircraft can't approach undetected and can't outrun missiles, ground vehicles will overpower them by virtue of carrying more of everything, including point defenses. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 24 at 8:16
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You can't armor your attack craft to stand up to point defense; not and still have them fly. Your described point defense weapons are equivalent to the US Navy's Phalanx point defense emplacement. It can take down anything that can fly, with any armor you can lift with wings or rotors. Your lasers must be roughly similar, or they wouldn't be worth deploying -- and most likely they can change targets much more quickly, since it takes much less power to move a couple mirrors than to move several meters of revolving barrel assembly and the rest of the (armored) turret.

Ground attack aircraft have flown Nap Of The Earth for decades, with progressively reduced minimum clearance requirements. They're still vulnerable to look-down, shoot-down systems. Additionally, they can't remain behind cover for that last kilometer -- that's an area easily cleared as part of setting up a SAM/AA site (an hour or two with a single specialist vehicle). Therefore there's no way to attack the site without being vulnerable to its point defense.

The only solution to this is to field very large numbers of very inexpensive drones, ideally with a high decoy percentage. If you can launch a thousand drones at a site, all arriving within seconds, only 10% need to be armed. The site will destroy 90-95% of the incoming drones -- meaning that out of that thousand, five to ten of the armed units will get through, and it only takes a single armed drone to take out a launcher or command truck.

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  • $\begingroup$ A-10 and Apache helicopters seem very close to what OP described. Yet neither are used to take down air defenses. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 23 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the A-10 had a 30mm gun while the Phalanx fires 20mm rounds. I suggest you edit the round size remark. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Oct 23 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ Either of those are capable of destroying airfields and parked aircraft (which is what a ground attack craft would do on that kind of mission). Neither one is armored enough to stand up to point defense (because that's not practical). Both are generally used for anti-armor or anti-materiel missions because nothing else does those missions as well. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Oct 23 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. Done. Thanks for the catch. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Oct 23 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose my core assumption was that, in an even fight, anti-air defenses beat aircraft, i.e. if you send 1000 drones after dozen AA batteries, and they cost about the same, you'd have AA batteries left over after the smoke clears. I don't have the data to judge whether that's true in real life, but I would argue that, as the question states that traditional fighters beat drone swarms because of better ECM, the same could be said of ground-based defenses. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 23 at 17:09
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I think the role of air defense suppression can be filled with super-sonic (or hyper-sonic) cruise missiles. Advanced electronics lets them fly low and follow the terrain, lack of pilot allows high-G turns to avoid point defenses, and low cost (relative to a full vehicle) let you shoot a lot of them.

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    $\begingroup$ I expect a missile is also cheaper to produce than a vehicle as well $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Oct 23 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ The issue with cruise missiles is that they are single use and quite possibly more expensive than a single anti-aircraft battery. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 23 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ This is the right answer. There's no reason to fly a piloted vehicle into a danger zone to take out air defenses if you can use missiles. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 23 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ @RutherRendommeleigh One Tomahawk cruise missile costs a bit less than 2 million dollars. A modern SAM launcher (one vehicle with missiles) costs between 5 and 20 million depending. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 23 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough. To be honest, I'm a little surprised at the costs of some of these systems. Will have to dig a bit deeper to figure out the reasons and whether that would apply to my setting. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 23 at 16:35
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You are looking for surface effect vehicles.

Ekranoplane

Taking the advantage Pelicans use to glide efficiently above the surface, ground effect vehicles are very common in military operations. They are difficult to steer, however.

The Ekranoplane pictured above was a great test of this concept. I really suggest you visit this page to see the advantages and disadvantages of this type of weapon.

A plane like this could be configured with rotating engines for VTOL operation, like a Harrier.

And let’s be serious for a second. Wouldn’t they just soil their skivvies with this thing coming at them under their RADAR?

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    $\begingroup$ I was under the impression that those only worked with relatively flat surfaces. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 23 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ Maneuverability was definitely a problem as stated. But this taught us much of what we know about your question. $\endgroup$ – Vogon Poet Oct 23 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ Why does it have to hover? Can’t it just walk on the ground? $\endgroup$ – Vogon Poet Oct 23 at 16:05
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In the real world, "Contact Patrol" aircraft moving to engage line of sight targets have been pretty much obsolete since the 1990's. Russian Spetsnaz operators have essentially swept the sky of Ukraine SU-25 ground attack aircraft (the Soviet era analogue of the A-10) with MANPADS and spotting for heavier GBAD systems in the "Frozen conflict" in Eastern Ukraine

enter image description here

Ukraine SU-25

In fact, ground based defence is moving towards a concept called C-RAM (Counter Rockets, Artillery, Mortars), which essentially means systems that can shoot artillery shells out of the sky. So appearing anywhere in the sight system of GBAD or C-RAM is very bad news.

enter image description here

Iron Dome C-RAM system

So if there is to be an aircraft it may have to be an arsenal aircraft capable of saturating a defense with a massive barrage of stand off weapons. An aircraft controlling a flight of UCAV "wingmen" that provide much of the same functionality (distributed sensors and weapons carriage) to make the defense need to deal with a "swarm" is also a possible way around the issue. If the swarming UCAV's are carrying capable weapons like hypersonic missiles, small railguns or high energy lasers, then they could battle it out with the defender, while follow on vehicles move past and engage the enemy in depth.

enter image description here

Swarm release

enter image description here

RAF Tempest 6 Generation fighter concept, showing how one aircraft might control swarms of different weapons for different effects

So targets are going to be approached by large numbers of weapons and systems, all working to do things like jam, distract, physically attack and overwhelm with sheer numbers in order to press through the defence.

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  • $\begingroup$ My issue with swarm tactics is that, unlike current day militaries, the civilization in question has a decent amount of experience in dealing with large numbers of drones, and on the defensive side of things, ground-based electronic warfare and directed energy weapons are probably very cost effective in such a role. If it's big and spohisticated enough to overpower a ground based system, and it can fly, it's probably too expensive to lose. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 24 at 8:52
  • $\begingroup$ Birds and insects, or schools of fish act in swarming manners without any form of electronic emission or reception, so it isn't impossible to imagine programming UCAVs or other vehicles to act this way. And large numbers of cheap systems is really the only way to overcome a sophisticated system. The expensive F-35 simply brings the swarm in a pod and the pod is released and glides in from outside of engagement range. A very simple weapon might be a pod which releases a cloud of nail sized darts at high altitude. This would be like being machine gunned for people on the ground. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 25 at 22:21
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In this setting, is space travel possible?

If it is, then orbit is the ultimate high-ground. You can destroy AA installations with precision "rods from god" or, if your setting is advanced enough, energy weapons like LASER or MASER beam satellites. Stealth in space is easier than stealth on the ground or in atmosphere, mostly due to how big and empty it is. Control over land could be fought by stealthy satellites, occasionally revealing their location by preforming an orbital strike before quickly maneuvering into obscurity.

Ground assaults could be timed to a specific satellite's orbit, for example:

  1. Force decides they want to take a city

  2. Through careful and stealthy maneuvers, they bring a couple satellites to orbit above the city

  3. As soon as the satellite passes overhead and blasts away all AA, the ground forces move in

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    $\begingroup$ "Stealth in space is easier than stealth on the ground" <-- Do you have a source for this? I can see the ISS traveling overhead with the naked eye, but not the snake hiding under a bush about to bite my foot. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Oct 23 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre The military today (probably) employs multiple stealth satellites and we have no idea where they are (even though the amateur satellite hunting community is highly skilled) space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/misty-1.htm . Additionally, there's the X-37B which, while it doesn't look that stealthy also hasn't been found by any amateurs and has been in LEO for multiple years now. If you paint something black and make it radar-absorbent, having it disappear in space isn't that difficult. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Oct 23 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Also space is just really big. Searching volumes of space that are bigger than the entire volume of Earth is difficult, no matter how empty it is. With the amount of debris in LEO, something that doesn't want to be seen could easily hang out there. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Oct 23 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ Very good catch, that would work in this setting and is actually something I use in the story. However, assets in orbit are limited (so not always cost effective to use) and vulnerable to counterattack. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 23 at 16:25
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Tiny, slow and cheap.

tiny dronesource

As things get smaller they get harder to detect with radar. Wavelengths and all. They are also harder to distinguish from normal environmental things, like birds.

Your future battlefield full of fast moving, fast reacting hyperactive AA AI will be countered by slow, tiny, dirt cheap drones. One could perch and detonate its tiny charge, or attach a magnetic bomb with a timer and then go back to get another one. One could perch and then send a laser upwards to bring in a laser guided bomb. One could drop off a little slip of paper with sayings from the Buddha, or a coupon for 10% off a drone-delivered pizza.

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  • $\begingroup$ Granted, those wouldn't be picked up by radar, but I'd feel pretty confident in a cluster of hi-res cameras and a couple of laser turrets. Current day technology can target mosquitoes based on their gender. And the smaller you make the drones, the less costly will an occasional false positive be. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Oct 23 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't these be picked up by radar? Radar is used to track migrating birds (in fact it was detecting bird migrations even with WWII level technology, though it took a while for anyone to figure out that the signals were migrating birds). And you can identify the bird species from the wingbeat patterns in the radar echoes, so a drone with rotating propellers might as well be towing a big banner saying ZAP ME $\endgroup$ – alephzero Oct 24 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ "Harder to detect" is not undetectable. At this size of about 6-7 cm the idea is that they would be subtle and confused with birds. If they could be 1 cm that would be undetectable by radar - background reading here: aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/21223/… $\endgroup$ – Willk Oct 24 at 11:31

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