Unmanned Aircraft Not Just for Combat
By Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, USAF
The speed with which unmanned aircraft capabilities have advanced in recent years has been astonishing.
The expanding applications of these systems are evidenced in the terminology change that has been ushered in over the last two years. What were previously known as “unmanned aircraft vehicles” and “remotely piloted vehicles” are now characterized as “unmanned aircraft systems.” This designation encompasses not only the aircraft, but also a diverse set of sensors and weapons, remote pilot and sensor operators, data links and the associated architectures that enable remote control of the aircraft, transmission of the data collected, and the processing facilities and personnel that receive, exploit and disseminate the resultant intelligence.
The latter, critical link in the chain is too often discounted or forgotten altogether. Yet, it is the ability to leverage these robust analysis centers, maintained outside the combat theater, that gives unmanned aircraft an invaluable “reach-back” capability.
It should therefore come as no surprise that unmanned systems are the combatant commander’s most requested capability. They are used to meet critical time sensitive targeting and surveillance needs in combat, to include security and stability operations, as well as domestic incident awareness assessments to provide local authorities and first responders information necessary to protect American lives and resources during natural disasters.
The most recent example of the latter occurred during the October 2007 wildfires in southern California. At that time the Global Hawk was called upon to provide California civil authorities and firefighters near-real time, high-resolution imagery. The aircraft were flown out of Beale Air Force Base, Calif., where the analysis facility also conducted the required imagery exploitation. This marked the first use of the Global Hawk in a tasking to assist civil authorities by operating over our homeland, and it will certainly not be the last.
Another milestone in domestic employment of unmanned aircraft was the Air Force demonstrating the ability to conduct these missions in full compliance with U.S. laws governing intelligence oversight and posse comitatus, which protects the constitutional rights and privacy of U.S. residents. The domestic Global Hawk employment presented the opportunity to exercise procedural agreements and linkages between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — the regulating authority for U.S. civil airspace — and the military authorities tasking and controlling the unmanned aircraft.
The overall demands of flying an aircraft in complex and densely populated civil airspace brings with it the necessity to comply with established flight safety guidelines and the requirement to secure FAA permissions to operate unmanned aircraft over the homeland.
Accordingly, it is imperative to have capable, experienced, and qualified pilots controlling these unmanned aircraft. Since the relevant aircraft — those imbued with “theater-level” utility — operate in the medium- and high-altitude regimes, their control raises obvious airspace management concerns. Even those that operate at very high altitudes, well above commercial air traffic, such as Global Hawk, must still traverse the heavily traveled altitudes for take-off and landing. Moreover, flight regulations are the same for unmanned as for manned aircraft, whether over the homeland or in combat battle space.
For armed aircraft in combat, there is the added issue of weapons release authority, and situation awareness in complex battle space; critical responsibilities for which Air Force pilots are specifically trained.
Such airspace and employment considerations account in part for the Air Force rationale behind using only rated pilots to control remotely piloted aircraft. They have the training, experience, and qualifications necessary to operate aircraft in densely populated, complex airspace. The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) recently reinforced this position in a report concerning a Customs and Border Protection-operated Predator unmanned aircraft that crashed north of Nogales, Ariz.
The NTSB investigation into the causes of the crash indicated that the individual controlling the aircraft had “accidentally shut down the plane’s engine...” Additionally, he did not have enough hours on the Predator to fly the plane without an instructor in the room, and the instructor was in another building. NTSB board member Steven Chealander in a USA Today article remarked that, “We definitely need to change the mindset from computer Game Boy to pilot of an aircraft.” The ability to actuate a joystick falls far short of the spectrum of skills and judgment required of medium and high-altitude unmanned aircraft pilots.
Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula is the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
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