Air warfare: Payload and what it means

The aviation community's opinion of tactical combat aircraft during the 1980's was split between awaiting the publication of rumoured stealth aircraft and fascination with extreme agility airframes that drove the F-16's high agility concept to extremes. 

By the 1990's and early 2000's another view took hold, mostly in the shadow of stealth aircraft that captivated the attention of only superficially interested laymen: Avionics had become extremely expensive and extremely capable since the 1980's. Seeing in darkness, very versatile radars, electronic warfare tools in all tactical combat aircraft, spectacularly successful (in '99) towed decoys, active radar seeker missiles, missile approach warners and much more had transformed old 1970's light alloy aerodynamically stable airframes beyond all public expectations for performance from the 1980's. Avionics, not stealth, were the real star in air warfare. Furthermore, agility performance expectations were shifted from the manned airframe to the self-guiding missile. The F-35's of today are not extremely better than F-16s from the late 80's in terms of rolling, turning, yawing, climbing, acceleration (if better at all) - but they make use of air combat missiles of drastically improved agility, sensor performance, manoeuvering logic and range. The stealth aircraft in general are not known for carrying much "payload", most of the promises of the F-35 were and are about avionics and peripheral offboard electronics.

You may look into books on aircraft and find payload or bombload figures. Tactical bombers of the USAF typically carried up to 4,000 lbs of bombs, for example. Payloads of individual aircraft were much higher than that during the 60's to 80's, especially with such types as Tornado IDS, Su-24, F-4, A-6, A-7. The A-4 was considered to be a great air/ground aircraft becuase its small airframe was able to carry an astonishing bombload over a good range.

The importance of big bombloads dwindled during the post-1991 period, nowadays tactical aircraft often take off to combat air/ground missions with more mass in external fuel tanks than in air/ground munitions. Still, payload seemed to be an important performance characteristic.

This view appears to be largely obsolete to me.

The real strength of manned aircraft of today isn't their payload, it's their avionics, specifically the mission-directed avionics. A Bayraktar TB-2 isn't so great because of its few puny guided glide bombs (albeit those destroyed much when air defences permitted it). It's the gimballed Argos II HDT sensor that's so important. It's a flying artillery spotter even when ordinary battlefield air defences keep it at a distance.

Whatever targets an aircraft detects, identifies and reports can be hit by artillery out to impressive ranges (over 70+ km with guided munitions), so having an artillery spotter that can see and ID a car out to 20 km is oppressive to the enemy.

Likewise, today's air/air missiles are essentially the same thing as a second stage of an area air defence (surface to air) missile might look like. You can see this clearly with the French MICA missile and the related two-stage Aster missile that uses about the same active radar guidance as MICA RF.

So basically as long as you're close to friendly ground forces you could shoot at a hostile air target with a two-stage surface-to-air missile instead of an air-to-air missile. About the same thing arrives at the target and stands about the same chance to hit it.

This means a defensive or air superiority fighter would not need much payload in terms of air-to-air missiles. Instead, its bird's view is what really matters. It could most of the time be used as an AEW asset, a flying radar platform that attempts to stay out of fights, but informs firing forces about contact vectors and identifications.

The payload of a tactical aircraft of today that really, really matters is its sensor payload. This is true both in air/air and air/ground.
To influence the ground war largely requires to have a bird's view on the ground, which requires a flying platform fairly close to hostile ground forces. This can be expected to cause high attrition, so a drone may be the best choice. A radar's bird's view onto the ground is less relevant in my opinion because it can be jammed much easier (lasers can also be used on drones using E/O and thermal sensors, but a powerful radar in SAR or GMTI mode is simply giving away its position much more).

To gain air superiority does not require to be far forward, as the primary sensor for this is still the radar. Air targets at normal altitudes can be detected and identified by land-based sensors quite well, but air targets at very low altitudes still require airborne radars for early warning. So the niche for the fast 8+ ton (maybe optionally manned) tactical aircraft of the future may be the use of a powerful look down radar, possibly in rather long wavelengths (L-band?) to devalue stealth. Such an aircraft might have a powerful radar with side-looking capability. This way it could fly parallel to an air war 'front line' while looking.

So the payload are the sensors, the shooters of munitions can be on the surface (which would greatly save costs despite more rocket propellant being required).
This applies to state of the art high end large scale warfare in my opinion. The optimum looks different for a Latin American country, for an African country, for a Southeast Asian country and for a carrier navy.

And below all this the air and ground war may soon be dominated by smaller than human drones on the battlefield, evading detection most of the time and able to act autonomously to avoid bandwidth and radio link reliability issues.




  1. Are you suggesting that in the air only a survivable sensor platform is needed, while munitions for air and ground targets can be transported on and launched from the ground?
    This idea has limited reach, and going beyond would require armaments carried in the air. Do longer ranged armed aerial platforms have a future?

    1. You don't need to defend against ground targets too far away from you to be hit with surface/surface missiles (which can have 4 Mm range post INF if you wish so).

      Combat aviation has less than 500 km penetration depth, likely less than 200 km against a 2nd rate opposition. Missiles such as the ATACMS successor or LORA (see the link in blog text) reach almost 500 km and do not require expensive strike package capability.

      Army artillery can hit targets out to 80 km with nowadays mass-produced PGMs, you won't have more than satellite observation on targets farther out against a 2nd rate opponent (SAR/GMTI radars such as ASTOR's can be jammed efficiently).

      Air/sea is a different issue, as ships are moving high value targets. To omit the air/sea capability would be negligent, as no army arty substitutes it. Air-launched attack on surface warships could be based on few fighters escorting transport aircraft for a 400+ km standoff saturation attack with anti-ship missiles.
      Said anti-ship missile could double as air-launched cruise missiles against fixed ground targets such as bridges, aircraft shelters, aircraft maintenance hangars, powerplant turbines or munition depots.

      Strike fighters are no more necessary for defence (and not necessarily best choice for bullying and small wars, either).

    2. Thank you. Considering battles at sea, which will likely become more important, could your missile transport aircraft be launched to fight something like the Falklands campaign, where friendly airstrips are far away?

    3. Everyone neglects air/ship strike and only the Americans spend really big on aerial tankers. Hardly anyone has thus the capability to strike carrier groups at sea, or to mount an effective naval blockade. To use cargo aircraft with rear ramp as AShM launchers is a quick fix for this. You "only" need to buy enough AShMs, some rather long-ranged anti-radar missiles and some pallets to enable hugely powerful anti-CVBG strikes.
      The Chinese use (at least publicly known) the alternative route of old Soviet approaches + anti-ship quasiballistic PGMs. That's nice as well, but takes more time from paying attention to having operational capability.