Air commanders often quote five-star Army, and later, Air Force Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who on V-J Day 1945 proclaimed that “the next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all.”
More than 65 years and dozens of conflicts later, the general’s prophecy hasn’t come true and some military leaders doubt it ever will.
Unmanned aerial systems have enjoyed a coming-out party in war zones. Their use in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that they are invaluable in uncontested airspace. But questions remain about how the current generation of U.S. drones would fair in unfriendly skies.
At a recent industry conference, Air Force Lt. Col. Steven Tanner made a gun with his fingers and impersonated the sound of planes being shot down.
“If we went to a North Korea scenario right now and put a bunch of Predators and Reapers in the air, you better bring the replacements because they’d be falling out of the sky,” said Tanner, doctrine division chief of the Joint UAS Center of Excellence at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
“The UAS honeymoon is over,” he said.
The Pentagon this year bought more unmanned aircraft than manned and expects to spend more than $24 billion from now through 2015 to build and buy pilotless planes. But many leaders across the services believe that several myths need to be exposed to determine the most realistic future for the systems.
The military’s unmanned aircraft range in size from handheld vehicles no bigger than a child’s toy to the Air Force’s Global Hawk, which has the wingspan of a 737 commercial jet. Though they have been used to launch attacks, drones mostly are employed as spy tools that gather intelligence and provide situational awareness to troops on the ground.
“It does not meet my definition of a weapons system,” said Air Force Gen. Roger A. Brady, who at a conference in July all but dared a crowd of UAS enthusiasts to prove him wrong. “If I see an F-16, that’s a weapons system. You know where it is, you know where all the electrons are going, you know what’s happening, you know who’s responsible. There’s a program manager that you can call and yell at. There are operators. There’s a command chain.”
It doesn’t work that way for a UAS, said the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. A signal from an aircraft is sent to a satellite, “then a million miracles happen along optical links and it ends up in Las Vegas. I’m not even confident we’ve mapped that whole thing. And by the way, it goes through commercial links.”
Those links are largely outsourced and lack central oversight. The “net” can easily be disrupted. “Sometimes it’s because we stumble over extension chords and sometimes it’s because somebody is messing with us,” Brady explained. “Why would an enemy try to directly oppose a multi-million dollar aircraft when he can disrupt it or strip away its advantage by using $30 of pieces and parts from Radio Shack or off the Internet?”
Brady was referring to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who have used inexpensive software programs to intercept video feeds from U.S. drones. And while the insurgency doesn’t employ an air force, the statistics weren’t pretty the last time the United States flew unmanned planes in contested air space. The NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999 lasted two months. During that time, two U.S. jet fighters were shot down. The United States also lost 15 drones. The entire conflict saw the loss of about 50 unmanned aircraft belonging to allied forces. Current potential adversaries have improved their tactics for countering remotely controlled planes, experts said.
“Our adversaries have UASs,” Tanner said. “Our adversaries know what our vulnerabilities are. Our adversaries can see our pictures.” At a conference in Israel two years ago, Tanner met a computer hacker who breaks into terrorist websites. The man handed him a disc containing al-Qaida documents on how to counter the Predator and Hellfire missiles.
“That was two years ago,” Tanner said. “What’s out there in the street today?”
The basic functionality of unmanned systems also is fraught with challenges, Brady noted. Drones can’t operate in bad weather or sense and avoid other planes, he said, describing their airspace management as “horribly inefficient.” They require extra room to maneuver and need buffer zones around their operations, Brady explained. While military leaders are willing to accept the risks that come with operating these systems in congested airspace overseas, civilian authorities have been slow to provide that access in the United States. The Federal Aviation Administration only recently granted the Army permission to fly unmanned aircraft in national airspace at night using ground-based radar and GPS systems to avoid civilian and commercial traffic. (See related article here
The military’s unmanned efforts must become leaner, faster, smarter and more interoperable, Tanner said. The aircraft also have to become cheaper.
An assumption persists that flying unmanned systems saves resources. Some military leaders have begun questioning that notion. Savings associated with a UAS depends on the type of vehicle. A handheld system can be operated on less money than a piloted plane. But cost grows exponentially for those that fly beyond the line of sight and carry an array of sensors, weapons and defense systems, Brady said.
The Army’s hand-launched Raven is advertised at $35,000 per vehicle or $250,000 for an entire system. An Air Force fact sheet lists at $20 million a Predator system that includes four aircraft with sensors. The closest manned comparison is the $23 million MC-12, which comes with a slew of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment and requires two pilots and two sensor operators. A Global Hawk can cost between $38 million and $103 million depending on the model and capabilities. The prices of next-generation unmanned aircraft may equal those of fifth-generation fighter jets, Brady said.
But the expense of a UAS doesn’t stop with the purchase, he warned.
“There is nothing unmanned about an unmanned aerial system,” he said.
The support tail for an unmanned system can meet and exceed that of a piloted plane. The ratio of crew members to UAS can approach 10 to one, Brady noted. The same ratio for an MC-12 is five to one. Fighter jets require two crew members at most and usually just one pilot. As the Pentagon looks for savings, the hidden costs of operating unmanned aircraft must be brought to the forefront, Brady said.
“Manpower costs are ultimately more challenging for restricted defense budgets than the systems they operate,” he said.
For unmanned aircraft to be effective in an increasing role, they must change, said Glenn Rizzi, deputy director of the Army’s UAS Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala. “It’s true, UASs are cool. I like them. They’re neat,” he said. But they’re going to have to do much more than ISR, and the Army is not ready to undertake an air assault in an unmanned Black Hawk helicopter or transport casualties in a pilotless aircraft, Rizzi explained.
Increasing capability comes with challenges. Flight lengths decrease and costs rise as weapons and equipment are added to the unpiloted aircraft’s weight. Because manned planes also perform ISR functions, persistence is the main reason for using drones, said Rizzi, who is optimistic about the future of unmanned planes.
He believes they eventually will be trusted to carry soldiers and launch significant attacks. The Army wants to fly more aircraft with fewer soldiers and is also looking at optionally piloted vehicles, or OPVs, Rizzi said.
In its “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap” released this year, the Army says it plans to convert a series of its helicopters to OPVs. The service hopes to have half of its fleet made up of aircraft that can fly with or without pilots by 2025, the roadmap says. The document also states that the Army expects that fielding technologically advanced unmanned systems will result in personnel and cost savings, but then adds “only time will tell.”
Part of the Army’s savings will come from focusing on interoperability and commonality, the roadmap says.
That goes for all the services, Tanner said. “We’ve been living in a fiscal fantasy land the last eight years,” he said. “We’ve got that financial hangover. The good news is as the belt gets tightened we in the joint world get to work together more.”
A uniform approach to unmanned aircraft has escaped the military for the most part. Even the simple decision of what to call a drone has become disparate and convoluted. The Defense Department officially calls it a UAS, but the Air Force refers to it as a remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA. The Air Force used to call it a UAS, and the Pentagon used to say unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Many in the military still use the latter, and some use more than one acronym when discussing the topic.
The Government Accountability Office in a report issued earlier this year found that the lack of collaboration between the services resulted in cost increases, schedule delays and performance shortfalls when acquiring drones. The Defense Department must achieve greater commonality among the military services to get the most out of its investments, the report said.
GAO studied 10 UAS acquisition programs, including those for the Global Hawk, Reaper, Shadow, Predator and Sky Warrior. It found that the Marine Corps avoided initial costs and delays in delivering capability to the battlefield by procuring existing Army Shadow systems. However, GAO also determined that the Army and Air Force missed out on savings by not working together on their Sky Warrior and Predator programs. The same contractor, General Atomics, develops both.
“Since July 2009, [the Defense Department] has made several investment decisions regarding unmanned aircraft systems, which in general, reflect increased emphasis on developing advanced capabilities and acquiring larger numbers of specific systems,” the GAO report said. “However, the decisions do not appear to focus on increasing collaboration or commonality among the programs.”
The future of the military’s pilotless systems needs to become clearer as the defense industry begins to operate in a fiscally constrained environment, Brady said. The issue ultimately comes down to trust, he explained, and nobody yet will dare put nuclear weapons, the president or their spouse in an unmanned plane.
It’s advantageous to have a human brain making judgments directly from the country’s most critical cockpits, Brady said, and a fascination with technology shouldn’t distract leaders from decision-making fundamentals.
“UAS may never be the sole airpower solution,” he said. “The burden of proof, in my opinion, is on the proponents of UAS.”