Remotely Piloted Aircraft

The battlespace is crowded with aircraft. And it is getting busier. Every nation sees the advantage of remotely piloting a vehicle over contested territory and using the on board capabilities to accomplish the mission without putting a pilot in harms way. In some ways, it almost seems surgical and without fingerprints. Its almost as if the nation of interest doesn’t have any recourse and the issues of sovereignty and overflight can be dismissed with a simple denial. Is this the wave of the future?

I remember in 1991, when I was working in the Joint Staff, we were standing up a counternarcotics division. Several contractors approached me to explain the opportunities they had with a remotely piloted vehicle and suggested it could be a great tool to patrol the border. We were looking at dirigibles with F-16 radars at the time because of the dwell time but saw the advantage of the predator-like UAVs. Of course, as we investigated further, legal issues prevented the use of military equipment within the borders of the US. This was 10 years before the establishment of Homeland Security but, there was a need and desire for more responsive intelligence capabilities then and there is even more of a need and demand for them today.

The question is, who’s in charge? The US is investing billions of dollars in drones…they are the key to future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. And, so are many other countries. With proliferation comes challenges. Sovereignty, airspace control and deconfliction, countering UAVs, exploitation of downlinks, rules of engagement, acquisition programs and dissemination of information to mention a few. Is there a single integrator? Should there be an integrator; a spokesperson for this explosion in capability?

At least 44 other nations are developing their own killer unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons in addition to the US’s large fleet of highly capable aircraft. Cool names like Sky Warrior and Vulture and Predator and Phantom Ray and Demon and Reaper and Hunter and Global Hawk and the Vulture, all will take to the sky and compete for airspace and satellite time.

After many years waging an economy of scale war in Afghanistan, DOD determined that increasing ISR assets was the first step in gaining knowledge of the enemy and a necessary step to take to win the war. With unacknowledged use in Pakistan and increased patrols in Afghanistan, the strategy is paying off in the kill and capture of many Taleban and Al Qaeda leaders.

Lessons learned from Iraq, the purchase of Beechcraft King Air 350ER manned aircraft and an dramatic increase in orbits from zero to 40 currently and up to 65 by 2015 will give the ISAF commander, and his subordinate commands, unprecedented eyes and ears in the battlespace. Boosting last year’s $3.5 billion budget by 50% for ISR clearly makes UAVs the battlefield and budget winner for the next couple years.

The future looks equally bright in terms of development. UAV technology will morph allowing embedding other capabilities including electronic warfare tools like radar jamming, autonomous aerial refueling, air-missile defense and surveillance. The flight envelopes will expand and opportunities to fly as high as 7.5 miles straight up and cruise at 600 mph will bring new dynamics to the UAV world. The possibilities are limitless when a UAV can potentially replace a satellite, staying aloft for as many as 5 years and persistently scan an area of 600 miles with a suite of day and night cameras.

The technology in drones has evolved quickly and the engineering accomplishments are astounding. Unit level UAVs that fly below a couple thousand feet to the highly accomplished technical marvels that fly a few miles above the earth’s surface all provide the combatant commander with capabilities only dreamed of just a few short years ago. But with this comes a much needed roles and missions discussion. Foreign governments are increasingly relying on the technology since unmanned drones represent less of a threat to airspace sovereignty than piloted aircraft. Budget crowd out, logistical and sustainment issues, rules of engagement and applications of international law will eventually find an entrée into this technological marvel.

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One Comment on “Remotely Piloted Aircraft”

  1. Good article. thank you

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