The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently awarded contracts to several defense companies to begin design work on a novel concept: an air-launched unmanned aerial vehicle that would carry its own air-to-air munitions. In other words, a carrier aircraft – a large, lumbering airlifter rather than a sleek, nimble fighter jet – would launch a drone, which would fly closer to a target and, if necessary, engage it with guided munitions. That arrangement would both keep human pilots much farther back from potential harm and provide more flexibility than a missile with a similar range.
If the concept itself seems baroque and complex – one analyst dubbed it “the turducken of lethality” – it is. Like many potentially game-changing military technologies, it may not be feasible; efforts to launch and recover small aircraft from large ones mid-flight have a checkered history, after all.
But if it is effective, it could fundamentally change how air power works: fighter aircraft, which have defined air superiority since World War I, might be relegated to specialist roles if not made obsolete. And that, in turn, creates a separate issue, one shared by other “game-changing” military technologies: If a new piece of hardware has in fact changed the world, how will we know?
The question of how to accurately assess the strength of an air force that starts replacing its traditional fighter aircraft with flying drone carriers might seem only relevant to the editors of “The Military Balance.” But clear understandings of capability inform policy; miscalculations can snowball into misunderstandings that can, in turn, result in strategic-level misadventures and catastrophes.
More prosaically, misjudgments about what new technological capabilities will prove militarily significant can hobble efforts to collaboratively reduce risks. Here, history is instructive: in a well-meaning but ultimately fruitless effort to prevent a naval arms race in the wake of World War I, the U.S., Japan, the U.K., France, and Italy ratified a set of naval treaties to limit their respective fleet sizes. Ships were limited by classification, tonnage and – for some types, like cruisers – caliber of the main battery. Aircraft carriers were restricted as well, but the terms of their restrictions were focused on their gun armament and tonnage and ignored their most significant capability: their air wings. Those carriers were so much more decisive to the outcome of World War II – especially in the Pacific – that battleships and other big-gun combatants essentially vanished shortly thereafter.
It is also worth noting that technologies in and of themselves can be ineffective without proper doctrine and training. As C.J. Chivers relates in “The Gun,” the French Army was well-equipped with volley guns (a predecessor to the machine gun) during the Franco-Prussian War. But because of their superficial similarity to large-bore guns, the French employed them as such – which left them largely unable to hit their targets and highly vulnerable to Prussian artillery. It took years before doctrine caught up with technology, bloodily reshaping how wars were fought and their impacts on society.
Of course, in a world of widespread industrial espionage and extremely precise open-source analysis, an as-yet-undeployed new technology must be credible in order to have any deterrent effect: none of Iran’s rivals seems to have adjusted their strategies in response to obviously fake capabilities like the Qaher-313 “stealth fighter.” (Though external messaging is only one aspect of military technology; demonstrating self-reliance and strength to domestic audiences could also account for such attempts.)
But in a world shot through with political tension and – as yet – little actual inter-state warfare, the actual effectiveness of new weapons may be beside the point. For example, China has invested considerable amounts of money in anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to sink or incapacitate the aircraft carriers that are the centerpieces of U.S. naval power. Like much of China’s contemporary military hardware, they have never been used in combat, so their actual deterrent effect on the U.S. is contested. Certainly, if their presence deters U.S. forces from supporting regional allies like Taiwan in a crisis, they could be considered successful even if never fired in anger.
And that is the crux of the matter. A weapon’s strategic value is not just its actual capabilities but the extent to which those capabilities are understood by potential adversaries. Giving indications of what those capabilities might be in advance is part of that process, but having done that, it is crucial for avoiding devastating miscalculations on either side to make sure that the turducken doesn’t end up just being a turkey.