The aviation industry has faced many challenges this last year in the form of the continuing travel limitations of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukraine war. Add to that energy and fuel shortages, inflation, and rising conflicts in various hot spots, and the outlook might seem bleak for aviation in 2023. While the commercial flier comeback and travel boom are well-documented, what about military aviation? Will 2023-2024 be Boom or Bust? Read below to understand that military aviation is doing better than many would expect.
The global military aviation market is rising by billions of dollars each year, which has in part been driven by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Now it’s becoming clear that more and more transport, fighter, and unmanned aircraft from countries all over the world will be involved in this prolonged war.
The military has always been at the forefront of aviation technology, and now the industry is pioneering more automated and sustainable ways to fly, and perhaps also getting ready to unveil some more advanced digital technologies to make aviation processes more efficient.
Let’s take a look at military aviation in 2022 and where that leaves us as we head into 2023.
The Challenges of 2022
A lot of the problems that hit the commercial aviation industry hard in 2022 caused issues for military aviation as well. One of the most pervasive issues has been short staffing. As of April 2022, the U.S. Air Force was short by roughly 1650 pilots. There just aren’t enough pilots to keep all the planes in the air. Still, that number is actually an improvement compared to 2021 and 2020.
The Air Force is trying to turn around staffing issues by bringing back retired pilots, offering bonuses of up to $35,000 per year, and stepping up recruiting. Unfortunately, it could still take at least two decades to bring staffing levels up to what they should be, and that’s assuming there’s not another global pandemic or devastating recession. But these numbers don’t even count the rise in military aviation among second- and third-world countries: despite economic challenges, these countries are fueling a huge demand in military aircraft from first-world producing countries.
Of course, 2022 also brought major supply chain issues, thanks to the combined effects of the pandemic staff reductions, inflation, and the Russia-Ukraine war, and these issues have had significant effects on aircraft manufacturing, including for the military. For example, Russia was one of the largest suppliers of aluminum for several aircraft manufacturers. With the limitations on trade, this supply has largely been cut off.
Add to that, trying to get other supplies from point A to point B has suddenly become much harder because of various European ports being restricted due to the war. New air routes created to accommodate those restrictions are longer, requiring more fuel and causing delays, and consequently increasing costs for international shipping.
Then there’s the energy disruptions that continue to this day. Russia’s oil reserves and other fuel sources are no longer available to the West, raising fuel prices considerably. This has made the development of less conventional fuel options crucial to cutting costs.
Also, the aviation industry’s high energy use has not escaped the attention of the sustainability movement. Air travel makes up around four percent of the various factors causing global warming. Reducing that number has become a priority for both civil and military aviation authorities. While driving an average passenger car from Los Angeles to New York is twice as polluting as flying as a passenger on a typical aircraft, aviation is much more visible than driving so bears the brunt of public opinion.
Overcoming the Challenges in 2023
The year 2023 begins with a lot of those same problems in place. So, what could change for military aviation going into the next year? And will the changes be for the better or for the worse? What are the major trends that might dominate 2023?
One of the factors that could help overcome understaffing in the aviation industry is autonomous flights for cargo transports. While automated flights for passenger aircraft are still a few years away, unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) have already seen some use in the U.S. Air Force.
In 2021, a company called Silent Arrow contracted with the military to provide cargo-delivery UAVs. These vehicles, essentially large drones, would have a carrying capacity of 350 pounds. Another company, Near Earth, similarly is supplying autonomous aircraft to the U.S. Army for cargo delivery. Throughout 2022, the U.S. Air Force also explored the use of autonomous co-pilots in lieu of hiring more pilots for cargo planes. The tests met with some success. Just a month ago, the military conducted cargo delivery to a navy ship at sea with a UAV for the first time. It seems clear that the use of UAVs will continue to increase, both in the military and civil sectors of aviation.
Many people have reservations about the use of A.I. in military aircraft, particularly regarding the potential security issues, but rigorous testing and quality control standards like DO-178C can ensure a high level of safety. The technology is already here, and now it only remains for widespread use to become the norm.
Electric aircraft will also become much more widespread in 2023. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence of this with the partnerships between electric aviation pioneers and the U.S. Air Force over the last couple of years. For example, Joby Aviation has had a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense for testing electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) for the last five years.
Also, as of October of last year, the U.S. Air Force made a new climate action plan public, with the goal of getting air bases to zero emissions by 2046. After all, the Air Force is responsible for the largest portion of the Defense Department’s carbon footprint. The U.S. Air Force has also experienced some of the worst effects of climate change in the form of bad weather, which has disrupted operations and brought high costs to the DoD. A major part of the emissions reduction plan involves seeking out more sustainable energy sources.
Electric aircraft could make military aviation better able to face future crises with less reliance on the fuels that are in limited supply. Those benefits have made eVTOLs attractive enough that, in February of last year, the U.S. Army contracted with Beta Technologies for flight testing support for a new eVTOL design. These eVTOL simulations focused on cargo and logistics mission assistance.
Of course, the road to eVTOL adoption isn’t exactly smooth and still has a lot of development ahead. Manufacturers have yet to fully address energy efficiency in eVTOLs, and operating on battery power severely limits the range of electric aircraft. Also, even if the technology were 100% ready for takeoff, regulatory guidance and oversight are still far behind. Although the EASA in Europe already has a regulatory framework in place that could lay the groundwork for something similar in the United States, there are still safety and security challenges for eVTOLs that need to be addressed.
Advancements to Come
In 2023, there will need to be major advancements in three main areas for eVTOL use to become widespread: battery technology, pilot training, and regulatory compliance.
Despite their widespread use, lithium-ion batteries still have the potential to catch fire or explode. Plus, if the electric systems that rely on these batteries fail, the result could be a devastating crash. A typical eVTOL doesn’t have a way to glide to safety, since they generally operate in the form of relatively small, helicopter-like aircraft. So, redundancies and robust safety checks will be all the more necessary for eVTOLs.
As for pilot training, current regimes aren’t necessarily suitable for eVTOL pilots. The U.S. Air Force is already working to evaluate current pilot training requirements with a focus on getting more pilots ready to fly eVTOLs. This will become even more of a priority throughout 2023.
Finally, while many eVTOL manufacturers are already actively seeking type certifications from the FAA, these will not be enough to facilitate deploying an entire fleet of electric aircraft. The U.S. needs a comprehensive regulatory standard that can cover the unique requirements of battery-powered, rotary-dependent aircraft. Most recently, the G-35 committee formed to discuss just that, and the process is underway to develop such a standard.
With these exciting developments in automation and eVTOL technology, 2023 is off to a great start for military aviation. Despite the challenges, the industry seems headed for a boom.