As U.S. military planners prepare to increase the presence of un-manned
aircraft over Afghanistan, they should not rush to the conclusion
that UAVs are money savers, experts said.
The conventional wisdom about unmanned aircraft is that they save
manpower, because pilots are not needed. UAVs keep pilots out of
enemy fire, but they do not necessarily save on support and maintenance
costs, said Larry Dickerson, senior analyst at Forecast International,
a business intelligence firm.
When a military unit deploys UAVs, he said, “you may need
more people. ... If you eliminate the pilot, it does not mean that
you eliminate the engine technician or the ground technician.”
He also noted that it takes a fairly long time to deploy a UAV
system. “With the Predator (see related story), it takes anywhere
between 10 to 20 days or even a month. Global Hawk could even be
longer,” Dickerson said.
The Global Hawk is the Air Force’s newest long-range reconnaissance
The cost of UAVs, additionally, is not low enough to make them
disposable, Dickerson said. They range in price from half a million
dollars up to $20 million.
“We’ve critically been lacking the tactical UAVs, the
real cheap version for a long, long time,” said the Commandant
of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones. As the war in Afghanistan
continues, he said he hopes that the production of tactical UAVs
will be accelerated.
“The payloads—sensors, airframes and the control and
communication network—that are combined to provide the capability
that we need are not inexpensive,” said a senior defense official,
who briefed reporters at the Pentagon. Nevertheless, UAVs are, in
military parlance, “attritable,” which means that the
Pentagon can afford to lose them, the official said, “especially
when the alternative is the loss of manned aircraft or an aircrew.”
“The risk is nothing and the gain is humongous,” said
a Northrop Grumman executive, who is involved in a program to develop
the Navy’s Fire Scout vertical takeoff UAV. The executive
asked not to be quoted by name, citing company policy.
Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for the Global Hawk, which,
at press time, was reported to be preparing for a deployment to
The hype surrounding the use of UAVs in the ongoing conflict should
not distract from some of the problems that need to be solved in
UAVs, said the senior defense official. “There are issues
with communications. ... There are issues with combat ID, making
sure that you have an ID situational awareness that you might have
with a manned platform that you may not have with an operator of
a UAV.” In this conflict, he added, “there is a lot
of situational awareness and a lot of dynamic aspects about the
mission that may never be suitable for unmanned aircraft.”
Dickerson asserted that unmanned vehicles, no matter how advanced,
could not completely replace the manned systems. “You are
never going to make machines that smart,” he said. There will
be a gradual insertion of UAVs into the forces, first freeing pilots
from hazardous assignments, said Dickerson. “You don’t
have to necessarily expose the pilot to hostile fire to see what
air defense system is operating in the area.”
He warned the UAV industry to avoid promising too much and raising
the expectations to unreasonable levels. “If you don’t
deliver, people will buy other manned systems,” he said.
Dickerson said that Global Hawk would be a “good system to
have in Afghanistan if the forces actually have a need for it.”
One has to know exactly what to monitor for, he said. Because the
Global Hawk flies at a much higher altitude, “Afghanistan
does not have weapons to get it down,” Dickerson said. “It
would be embarrassing if the Taliban managed to bring down the system.”
The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high altitude UAV (up to 65,000 feet)
designed to provide wide area coverage (up to 40,000 nautical miles
per day). To date, it has accomplished more than 100 flights and
1,200 flight hours.
From April to June 2001, the Global Hawk was deployed to Australia.
“We completed 13 to 14 planned sorties supporting Australian
activities for coastal surveillance, maritime surveillance, and
we also participated in the exercise Tandem Thrust, which was a
joint U.S.-Australian-New Zealand-Canadian naval exercise,”
said the defense official.
Global Hawk takes off and lands conventionally on a runway, and
carries a 1,950-pound payload for 36 hours. The Air Force wants
to grow the payload to about 3,000 pounds. The sensors are electro-optical
and infrared cameras, as well as a synthetic aperture radar. “With
the cameras, we can identify targets out to 30 miles, and the radar
is effective to over 100 miles,” said the official. The Air
Force has budgeted for two aircraft per year starting in fiscal
2002. The initial operational capability was scheduled for 2005.
During the development phase, the Air Force bought five Global
Hawks and lost one to a mishap. “We currently have two more
in production to be delivered during this fiscal year,” said
the official. He added that the plan was to buy 51 production air
vehicles and nine additional ground stations, with the first production
deliveries in fiscal year 2003.
The Air Force currently has four systems that it could deploy,
although Dickerson predicted that only two would be sent to war,
if any at all. However, he said, the question is whether enough
people are trained on the system. “They will have to take
people who tested the system, some of the support personnel will
have to go, maybe even some from the contractor, Northrop Grumman,”
During a conference in Reno, Nev., sponsored by the National Defense
Industrial Association, the Northrop Grumman official said that
UAV programs, no matter how well they perform, come with an inherent
amount of risk. “There has never been a UAV program that has
successfully completed EMD [engineering and manufacturing development],”
he said. “All of them are a result of a demonstration program.
We tried many, we failed many.” Several UAV programs in the
past fell victims to the pressure that EMD programs bring, he said.
“We want to be revolutionary, we want to be transformational,
but our bureaucracy within the development program brings a lot
Fire Scout has completed 19 months of a 42-month, $93 million EMD
phase, he said. “We struggle and deal with problems every
Fire Scout is a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) tactical UAV.
It is designed to remain on station for at least three hours, flying
at speeds of 110 nautical miles with a payload of 200 pounds. It
has an electro-optical infrared sensor with a laser designator/range
The Navy selected the Fire Scout in February 2000 to fill a need
for a UAV that could operate from all aircraft-capable ships. Fire
Scout will also fill a requirement for the Marines, who need a UAV
to support Marine Expeditionary Units operating from amphibious
assault ships. Together, the Navy and Marine Corps plan to acquire
23 systems of three aircraft apiece, between fiscal years 2003 and
2007. Additionally, the Coast Guard is considering Fire Scout for
its proposed Deepwater modernization program.
The Fire Scout is a derivative of a commercial helicopter, the
Each Fire Scout system includes three helicopters, two ground stations
based on Humvees and a modular mission payload. “Our helicopter
is very nimble, and can make corrections very quickly if you update
it very quickly,” the Northrop Grumman official said. “The
aircraft figures out how to land. We just take the info of the accurate
location, and the vehicle will figure out how to get there. We do
not need rafts anymore.” With three helicopters, the system
could stay on station for up to 12 hours, he said.
The helicopter can fly up to 15,000 feet. “We can pass control
of our vehicle from ship to shore at any time,” he said.
Among the key technologies needed to mature in UAVs are miniaturization
and weapons, Dickerson said.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently
sponsoring other UAV programs. Teamed with the Air Force, DARPA
is funding the X-45 Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV). A contract
was awarded to Boeing in March 1999. A prototype is scheduled to
fly in the near future. The UCAV was designed as a SEAD (suppression
of enemy air defenses) platform, and is expected to cost about one-third
of the price of a Joint Strike Fighter.
DARPA also is teamed with the Navy to develop a Navy UCAV and examine
concepts for an eventual carrier-based UCAV for surveillance, strike,
and SEAD missions. Boeing and Northrop Grumman are developing competing
designs for the Navy UCAV.
The Advanced Air Vehicle (AAV) program, also a DARPA project, is
developing two rotorcraft projects, the Dragon Fly Canard Rotor
Wing (CRW) and the A160 Hummingbird. The CRW will demonstrate the
ability to take off and land from a hover, then transition to fixed
wing flight for cruise. The A160 UAV uses a hinge-less, rigid rotor
to achieve a high-endurance (over 24 hours), high-altitude (30,000
DARPA also has been exploring four designs for micro air vehicles
(MAV), which are miniature aircraft, less than 6 inches in any dimension.
The MAVs are designed to aid individual soldiers and Marines fighting
in urban areas. The program is pushing technologies such as small,
lightweight propulsion, small sensors, and communication technologies.
While all these programs are being developed, the services are
looking at ways to make the UAVs joint and interoperable, said Navy
Capt. Roy Rogers, director of the joint UAV program office. Addressing
the NDIA conference, he said that UAV interoperability will be a
difficult task. “Existing tactics, techniques and procedures
do not adequately support a joint UAV employment in dynamic, time-sensitive
operations,” he said. A Navy-led program, the Tactical Control
System, is developing a network that can allow UAV users to command
and control other services’ UAVs and disseminate information
across a number of command and control nodes.
“[TCS] is our primary entry into the interoperability world,”
said a senior defense official.
Rogers said that a lot of work needs to be done in areas such as
air-interdiction and armed reconnaissance, fire support, special
operations, non-combatant evacuation operations and personnel recovery.
Dyke Weatherington, deputy director for UAV sensors and data links
at the office of the defense secretary said that there are four
issues that need to be addressed in the UAV community: technical
(architecture), regulatory (airspace), political (treaty implications
The technical issue is whether to migrate towards air-centric (processor
based) or ground-centric (communications based) architecture, Weatherington
said at the NDIA conference. “In the case of the former, relatively
autonomous UAVs with minimal ground infrastructure and direct downlinks
to users will be the norm,” said the UAV roadmap published
by the OSD this year. In a ground-centric architecture, UAVs will
be remote “dumb” sensors feeding a variety of sensory
data into a centralized ground node which builds detailed pictures
for the users.
Another issue is how to safely integrate UAVs into the National
Airspace System, which is customized for manned flights. Weatherington
said that standards must be established to allow UAVs top operate
flexibly within the NAS, even for high-altitude missions involving
flights above all civil traffic, because UAVs still have to climb
through a potentially crowded airspace.
The services, through organizations such as the Air Force Flight
Standards Agency, ensure military aircraft operations comply with
FAA standards and share the responsibility with the FAA for safe
airspace integration. However, the FAA sets the standards.
According to the Pentagon’s UAV roadmap, “The vision
for future UAV operations should be one in which the UAV pilot can
check the sky, decide to fly, file a flight plan and be airborne,
all within one day.”
UAV developers and policy makers also must address treaty requirements,
when it comes to the deployment of armed UAVs. These treaties include
the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, the 1990 Conventional
Armed Forces in Europe treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms reduction
While there are a number of organizations involved in managing
UAV efforts, responsibility for certain functions is not defined
clearly, said Weatherington. Some of these functions include establishing
interoperability standards for mission planning and control software,
sensor-product formats; identifying common equipment; prioritizing
funding for promising technologies with cross-service applicability;
ensuring UAVs are considered as an option in new aircraft programs;
the advocacy of the Defense Department’s interests in non-defense
UAV forums (Congress, intelligence community, NASA) and participation
in UAV export decisions with the State and Commerce Departments.