Enjoying much notoriety and acclaim, unpiloted aircraft can expect to remain a growth industry for years to come.
But the military services have yet to come to grips with how unmanned aircraft fit into their traditional organizations, and have yet to overcome the limitations of the new technology, according to an industry expert.
“Some innovations are easier to digest organizationally than others,” says James Hasik, an aerospace and defense industry consultant.
The Defense Department deserves credit for rushing the development and deployment of surveillance drones such as the Predator and the Global Hawk, despite huge bureaucratic obstacles, Hasik says.
But in the larger scheme of military weaponry, unmanned aircraft have yet to be fully welcomed into the family. “Integrating unmanned aircraft into a force designed for manned aircraft should be expected to pose challenges,” Hasik contends in a book scheduled to be published next month, “Arms and Innovation: Entrepreneurship and Alliances in the Twenty-First Defense Industry.”
He cites the Predator as a poster child for how good ideas can survive, even when confronted by the Pentagon’s unfriendly acquisition process.
Before the 2001 Afghanistan campaign, the plane had failed the rather strict operational testing regime to which the Air Force subjects developmental aircraft, Hasik notes. “The Predator, it was known, could not take off in heavy rain, snow, ice or fog. Its low speed left it rather vulnerable to ground fire, at least at the lower altitudes at which it did its best work. Its sensors work most efficiently at altitudes under 10,000 feet, which puts it easily within the range of anti-aircraft cannons.” But the Pentagon did not allow technicalities such as a negative test report to dampen its enthusiasm. Hasik points out that the design of the Predator B ameliorated many of these problems by increasing the top speed from 120 knots to 220 knots, its payload from 450 to 750 pounds, and its ceiling from 25,000 to 45,000 feet.
An even more significant step was the arming of the Predator with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, which turned the drone into an attack aircraft.
But for all the positive press the Predator has received for clobbering al-Qaida militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, unmanned strikes remain a risky proposition because they cannot easily discriminate friendly from enemy targets, Hasik says.
“A particular concern about the use of armed drones is the potential for collateral damage,” he adds. The problem is that drone operators looking at computer screens — unlike traditional fighter pilots in a cockpit — don’t have good enough visibility of the battlefield. “In general, removing the pilot from the aircraft arguably decreases his situational awareness,” Hasik explains. “The cockpit provides considerably greater immediacy than a comfortable chair and a computer monitor hundreds or thousands of miles from the battle.”
Pilots in the cockpit tend to do better at distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants on the ground, says Hasik.
Another considerable limitation to the use of unmanned aircraft is the scarcity of satellite radio bandwidth, he notes. Even though the Air Force is planning to maintain a fleet of more than a hundred Predators, it will hardly be able to fly them simultaneously.
Hasik recalls that plans for large numbers of UAVs were laid in the late 1990s when huge private investments in worldwide communications infrastructure suggested that up to 1,000 communications satellites might be available within 10 years to carry all the required communications traffic. “Piggy-backing a few military videophone calls on that infrastructure would have been easy,” he writes. “Instead, the commercial telecommunications satellite business took a downturn as sharp as that of the global fiber-optic cable industry.”
Between 1998 and 2002, the pace of commercial launches was just over one-third of what had been expected. Thus in 2001 and 2002, the Air Force was able to keep only two Predators and one Global Hawk operating over Afghanistan simultaneously, according to Hasik. One partial solution, he offers, may be to load these aircraft with terabytes of information on the areas they are intended to inspect so that “they only need to send a message if somewhere in the image a pixel changes.”
A more significant hurdle for the adoption of unmanned aircraft is not technological but cultural, he argues.
The Air Force assigns only commissioned aviators with previous cockpit experience to fly the Predator and Global Hawk. And the service so far has been adamant that the practice continue. “To do otherwise would seriously change the culture of the service,” Hasik says. “Despite its claims to be an air and space force, with more than 40 years experience with missile forces, no one but a career pilot has ever held the office of chief of staff.”
Pilots of manned aircraft have “generally not been thrilled with being assigned to drone squadrons,” he says.
Although the Air Force says it has rapidly expanded the ranks of UAV operators, “very few of these flyers are volunteers, as most have expressed preference for flying in the cockpit rather than remotely,” Hasik asserts. “A few of the pilots who have been ordered to Predator duty have chosen, if their required service was coming short, to refuse the assignment and leave the service instead.”
As a result, the Air Force has been crediting UAV hours toward pilots’ flight pay calculations to improve both compensation and morale, Hasik says. “Without this, their pay and their chances for promotion would suffer.”
Another move designed to boost morale was to supply chase aircraft to Predator squadrons to keep pilots in the cockpit skills relatively up to date, says Hasik.
He suggests that if pilots are naturally not interested in controlling drones, the drones can be sent to a different corps of professionals. At one point, the Air Force was considering allowing a few enlisted airmen who were FAA-certified private pilots to fly the aircraft from their remote control stations. That is an option worth contemplating, he says, given that in current operations, the person controlling the Predator’s mission is more often the enlisted sensor operator who often finds himself in the unique position of giving orders to the commissioned pilots sitting alongside him.
In the Navy, Army and Marine Corps, drone pilots are often drawn from the enlisted ranks. Hasik notes that in the Vietnam War, the pilots for Firebees drones were often contractors from Ryan Aeronautical. In the British, French and German armies, truck-mobile drones have generally been assigned to the artillery. Drone units operate much like artillery forces, following troops in the field and launching strikes or recon missions upon short-notice orders from the front lines, he says. “Without a fixed-base structure, extensive cockpit schooling and a silk-scarf culture, drone units seem to many to fit better here than alongside manned aviation.”