Paper Tigers: Unmanned Aircraft in the 21st Century.
The Pentagon’s plans for a new age of automated warfare may have to wait.
by Jack Audrey Talbot :: January 19, 2032 :: Jaynes Military Journal, vol.62.035
“Ever notice how when someone promises a new era of bloodless
warfare, it usually means a whole bunch of people are about to die?”
.......................................................................................... ..... ..... -Major Eric Sutherland, USAF
On February 6, 2031 the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan drifted into the Gulf of Tonkin and commenced the largest aerial drone attack in history. Called Operation Black Magic, more than thirty unmanned vehicles were launched from the Reagan and sent after high-value targets deep inside Imperial China. Although drones have become a staple of warfare since the turn of the century, Black Magic was meant to make history. Never before had a totally unmanned offensive of this scale been tried, and certainly not against a technically sophisticated enemy such as the Jade Army.
As we know now, Black Magic was a crippling failure. Twenty minutes into the mission the Reagan lost contact with the drones when a Jade ECM craft flew into range and jammed control frequencies. The drones, cut-off from their remote-pilots, did exactly what they were programmed to do in such an event. They switched to self-guided flight and set course for home. At the time, no one realized the Jade craft had not only jammed the Navy’s control frequencies, but cracked them. When the six bombers, twenty fighters, and four electronic support drones returned to the USS Ronald Reagan, they did not land as expected. The drones, now under enemy control, attacked.
Black Magic’s disastrous end was a huge blow to US Naval strategy, which for years had been steadily phasing out combat pilots in favor of unmanned aircraft and guided missiles. The general attitude was that warplanes and the required personnel to operate them were too expensive, especially in light of the fact that not a single US adversary in the last forty years had a capable air force. By 2031, not a single US aircraft carrier had more than fifteen combat pilots aboard; and among them, none were trained beyond flying ground-support roles. With American drones vulnerable to enemy ECM tactics, the mighty carrier groups that were once the linchpin of the American’s naval power became virtually toothless over night.
To a lesser extent, Black Magic was also a blow to the US Air Force. Hesitant to decommission any manned squadron, Air Force brass had opted for a hybrid approach. Aside from recon roles, USAF drones never operate alone. Drone fighters fly side-by-side with manned F-22 Raptors, drone bombers are always monitored by manned E-52 electronic support planes. For them, Black Magic represent a serious loss in overall force strength.
Since Operation Black Magic, American drones have been made substantially more secure, or as the Pentagon puts it, “tamper-proof.” Even so, commanders in the field have yet to trust unmanned aircraft as they once did. Although the Jades have not seized control of any more US drones, jamming does remain a problem. This is most troubling for the Navy’s unmanned air-superiority fighter, the RF-47 Manta. This craft, which has effectively replaced the Navy’s fighter squadrons, is still highly susceptible to enemy jamming. And with Jade warplanes now sporting laser-pinpointed ECM weaponry, the need for a human in the cockpit is greater than ever.