Nowadays, aircraft have advanced avionics and detection capable of identifying targets miles away, and missiles capable of downing a fighter at comparable ranges. Aircraft still have cannon, because one can't predict every combat scenario. The likelihood that the current generation of air superiority fighters will fight each other is quite low. For all their posturing, Russia and the USA are not going to go to war over whichever tiny country Russia wants to annex.
It does seem important, however, that air to air combat isn't ignored. Air supremacy dictates how ground battles are fought. While the modern guerrilla isn't going to stand and fight (as the traditionalist may put it), even a third world army loses a significant amount of mobility by having all of its utility vehicles bombed out. Hypothetically, the ability to win an air war basically will determine how successful a country is at the counterpart ground war if it is going toe to toe with a similarly armed and sized country.
One thing I've always found odd is that there seems to be a perception that drones (UAVs, for the wankers out there) will never replace real, physical fighter pilots (and their fighters). This seems rather odd to me for a bunch of reasons:
- Of all the combat spaces, air to air combat is probably the easiest turn into relatively simple equations. There is barely any cover or terrain to speak of to confuse or outwit a drone with. A lot of flying is already automated for that fact. Planes fly in relatively predictable curves based on their speed, model, and apparent thrust. And so on.
- Drones can respond much more quickly and accurately to complex maneuvers. Even with pilot controlled fighters the trigger for their cannon is operated by a computer since modern jets can fly in between bullets (or into their own)
- Drone computers are smaller and capable of operating in more extreme environments than pilots. For instance, they are capable of withstanding far more G-forces than even a pilot in a G-suit.
The last point is one that means that any drone fighter is not just going to be a manned fighter retrofitted with another computer. It could be much smaller, much faster, or much more versatile. Or longer ranged. Or whatever you wanted with the several tonnes saved from removing the fleshy pus bag and all of his (or her) support and interface gear.
"Foreign Policy" says that " At present, these are critical tasks that only pilots physically engaged in the battle can do. Distantly controlled unmanned aircraft lack these capabilities. If ever caught in a dog-fight, they transition from lethal airborne assets to defenseless targets."
It also says that drones will never be better than a thinking breathing human in the cockpit. However, this seems remarkably short sighted. Aircraft with some autonomy could react far faster than a human being, to the point of being ludicrous. It wouldn't require a dude in a demountable making it jink or fire. It would just eliminate everything larger than a bird in the sky. It seems almost absurd to think that this wouldn't be the case.
Honestly, this post came away from me. It was initially supposed to be about aircraft design. Whatever. Next week maybe.