Throughout U.S. history, advances in military capability have been fueled by innovation. All branches of the military consistently have managed to use technology in new and creative ways to gain an edge over the enemy.
The wars of the past decade exposed an “innovation gap” that forced the U.S. military to play catch up, and react to enemy tactics — such as roadside bombs and sniper attacks — rather than anticipating them. The Defense Department’s research-and-development apparatus was slow to respond with new and improved weapons based on changing threats. Critics have called for the Pentagon to stop wasting money on science projects that target undefined hypothetical future wars, focus on systems that they know deployed forces need, and to move them to the field in weeks or months, not years or decades. Innovation is not helpful if it’s not assisting troops at war. As many senior Pentagon officials have noted, an 80-percent solution that can be available in months is better than a perfect outcome that could take years or decades to achieve.
In this special report, National Defense identifies 10 key technologies that U.S. forces likely will need to fight the next war. Regardless of where or when that conflict might be, there is widespread consensus that advances in certain key areas would benefit U.S. forces.
Examples are faster and quieter helicopters, advanced crowd-control weapons, lighter infantry equipment that doesn’t overburden troops, ultra-light trucks and better battlefield communications. In the maritime realm, Navy leaders have for years been seeking stealthy mini-submarines that can be remotely operated, and fast bulletproof power boats for anti-piracy and coastal security operations.
Accurate intelligence about the enemy is always on the military’s wish list, and success in future conflicts will require technologies that can perform persistent surveillance to help identify enemies and friendly forces. Robots that can operate autonomously also will be essential tools of war, not necessarily to fire weapons, but to conduct mundane tasks such as delivering cargo.
Also on the wish list is renewable energy that reduces the military’s dependence on fuel supplies. Transporting fuel to war zones has become one of the most dangerous missions because enemies know that it is the lifeblood of the U.S. military machine. Almost anything that helps reduce that demand is likely to be welcome.
The list of 10 technologies that follows is in no particular ranking order.
Faster, Quieter, Safer Helicopters
■ When Taliban fighters shot down a special operations MH-47 Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan this summer, killing 30 U.S. troops, it was seen as proof that U.S. forces need faster choppers. Special operators and medical evacuation units, in particular, need more speed not just to reach critical areas of the battlefield more quickly but also to be able to dodge enemy fire.
Secret missions such as the one that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden also have shown the need for agile, quiet, less detectable rotorcraft. A modified stealth helicopter used in that operation crashed, highlighting another issue with the current crop of military choppers: They are most prone to accidents during takeoff and landing.
These speed, noise and safety demands are forcing manufacturers to stray from conventional helicopter designs, which experts say caps an aircraft’s speed at around the 170 knots that the CH-47 Chinook currently reaches.
Tilt-rotor advocates say the military should buy more V-22 Ospreys, which can reach cruise speeds of about 250 knots.
“In 50 years, a lot of aviation will be this kind of machine,” said Emilio Dalmasso, senior vice president of commercial business at AugustaWestland, which is partnering with Bell on the BA-609 tilt-rotor. “One that has the capacity to take off and land like a helicopter but then fly as an airplane.”
The tilt-rotor has been controversial because of accidents and its high cost, but engineers are using its design as a way to boost speed and performance. An Atlanta-based startup Oliver VTOL has proposed a six-engine aircraft, called Hexplane, which in artist renderings looks a bit like the V-22 with additional wings and rotors. CEO Richard Oliver said the aircraft would be able to fly higher than 35,000 feet at about 350 knots.
Other manufacturers are offering increased speed through a traditional look. Sikorsky is using two main counter-rotating blades and a tail propeller for extra push. The company is readying this concept for the Army’s Armed Aerial Scout program, which seeks to replace the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior.
AVX Aircraft Co. suggests upgrading the OH-58 with the same double-rotor concept but with no blades at the tail to reduce noise. The helicopters used in the bin Laden raid had coverings on the rear rotors to muzzle sound. They also featured a special coating to avoid detection by Pakistani radars.
Though all of the Navy SEALS on board survived the crash at the bin Laden compound, helicopter mishaps are second only to improvised explosive devices in causing troop fatalities in Afghanistan. Most of the accidents occur at takeoff or landing. “Brown-outs,” during which flying dust and sand restrict a pilot’s visibility, are a leading hazard.
Manufacturers are studying how blades can change shape during flight just like airplane flaps do during takeoff and landing. AugustaWestland is pursuing a concept that uses a blade with an extreme twist and paddle on the end of it that helps to reduce brown-outs.
BAE Systems recently unveiled a product that would allow pilots to see through dust, fog and smoke, said Paul Cooke, business development director of defense avionics for BAE. The technology, which could be used on the CH-47 and V-22, employs a radar that scans ahead of the aircraft to detect any obstacles. It then displays what it sees for pilots so they can land safely.
Weapons That Don't Kill
■ Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates once said in the future “the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory.”
A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it can be nearly impossible for troops to distinguish between enemy combatants and the local population, has highlighted calls for more nonlethal weapons. Troops could use these tools — already widely employed by law enforcement — to temporarily incapacitate adversaries or their equipment without harming nearby civilians. They also need devices that work at long distances to halt unknown personnel or vehicles until they can determine if they are a threat.
Nonlethal weapons can range from rubber bullets and pepper spray to lasers, high-powered speakers and lights that cause disorientation. These weapons will become even more important to a military that has taken on roles away from battlefields, providing humanitarian assistance or support to civilian agencies, as well as conducting emergency evacuations, crowd control and other peacekeeping missions.
The Defense Department develops such technologies under its Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, which has come up with everything from 12-guage beanbag rounds to entangling nets. The services are ramping up their efforts as well, with new devices and joint training with civilian law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad.
A Marine Corps company at Camp Lejuene, N.C., recently made the transition from an infantry unit to an “anti-terrorism battalion” that is trained to detect terrorist activity and respond to crisis situations in the wake of an attack. The outfit just wrapped up an exercise in which it used nonlethal tactics and devices to subdue rioting crowds.
The Army is fielding a “distraction” grenade, which causes a flash and loud bang upon hitting the ground. The M-98 has a range of 150 meters and can be fired from launchers mounted on vehicles. The grenades will be used at checkpoints to provide a warning for incoming motorists to slow down.
But experts say the most useful nonlethal technology to modern forces is directed energy weapons that allow troops to impact adversaries in various settings, including at sea.
Boeing has teamed up with BAE Systems to build a laser for Navy ships, which would bring a nonlethal component to a deadly remote-control machine gun. The laser could be used as a precise targeting tool for the gun, but it would also be able to deliver enough power on its own to disrupt or destroy optics, burn materials and disable enemy weapons, Boeing officials said.
BAE Systems also has a laser that gives a visual warning from long distances by disorienting adversaries on another boat or ship. The glare from the beam does not harm the eye, but it is intense enough to make it impossible to aim weapons, BAE officials said.
A directed energy weapon developed by Raytheon Co. causes burning sensation on the skin. The active-denial system delivers a beam of electromagnetic radiation the same way a microwave would to heat meals. But the millimeter waves don’t penetrate the skin deeply enough to cause permanent injury.
The Defense Department just gave $3.2 million to startup firm TeraDiode Inc. to string together several diode lasers to form a much more powerful single beam. The company is no longer speaking publicly about its technology, but before it went mum officials said the contracts could lead to improved targeting and navigation systems as well as anti-personnel nonlethal weapons.
Inventions That Lighten The Soldier's Load
■ For troops to have the best shot at surviving and winning wars, they must carry around a mish-mash of equipment that includes, among other things, communication devices, weapons, ammunition and batteries.
But these items add dozens of pounds to soldiers already wearing heavy body armor. The rugged environment in Afghanistan, where troops trek miles up into the thin air of the mountains, has made it more imperative that scientists in government and industry find ways to lighten loads that can reach 100 pounds.
The military is focused on shedding weight through technology and logistics. If soldiers can count on their food, water and ammunition being a certain location when they arrive, then they have less weight to carry. The Army is investigating the increased used of precise, GPS-guided “smart” parachutes to drop more gear from the air to the front lines.
Officials also have expressed interest in a robotic pack mule Boston Dynamics is developing. The machine can carry 400 pounds and either follow along with a ground unit or be programmed to meet troops at a certain location with their gear.
Energy is another tricky part of the weight problem, Army officials said. Batteries needed to power radios and other electronic gadgets account for a fifth of the total weight carried by soldiers in theater, they said. During a three-day mission soldiers will carry seven different types of batteries that can add 20 pounds to their load.
The Army would like to create wearable power systems and higher-voltage batteries that would require less recharging. Scientists also are investigating the concept of clothing materials that can act as an electrical bus shifting power around the uniform as needed. These innovations could free troops from carrying so many batteries. Special fibers also could be made to change with the weather, eliminating the need to pack extra layers in cold temperatures.
Exoskeletons also may help troops march to the fight without running out of steam. The human universal load carrier, or HULC, being developed by Lockheed Martin and the Army is a wearable robot with leg braces that transfer weight from a soldier’s back down to the ground. Sensors throughout the system allow the exoskeleton to mimic a soldier’s motions. Though tests are ongoing, officials have estimated that it could carry up to 200 pounds.
But all soldiers must wear body armor, which continues to cause issues for designers who are looking to balance protection, comfort and weight. The standard vest worn by soldiers now weighs about 35 pounds. The Army is measuring the sizes and shapes of soldiers to find ways to contour the armor so that it feels lighter, even if it weighs the same amount, said Jack Obusek, director at the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts.
Officials are undertaking this study because extremely lightweight nanomaterials that could revolutionize body armor are several years away from being realized.
Nanotechnology one day may be able to provide soldiers with a suit of armor that fits like a t-shirt, Obusek said.
Ultra-Light, Super-Survivable Dune Buggies
■ Thousands of U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan while traveling in Humvees. The roadside bomb threat set off a years-long effort to heavily armor military vehicles. The Defense Department spent billions of dollars on highly survivable mine-resistant ambush-protected, or MRAP, trucks. But the huge weight of these armored vehicles also has created problems as it diminishes mobility and limits off-road driving.
Manufacturers were asked to produce a lighter, all-terrain version of the MRAP, called the M-ATV. Those, too, were rushed to the battlefield. But even the all-terrain MRAP is too heavy for the types of military operations that strategists believe will take place in the coming decade. Most likely, there will be low-intensity conflicts where small units will need to operate covertly, and be able to move in and out of an area quickly. For these scenarios, troops would want a versatile vehicle with off-road mobility and speed.
Marines and U.S. special operations forces want vehicles that are fast, agile, and able to squeeze down alleyways.
The services in the short term are looking to upgrade the Humvee with improved blast protection. In the long term, they are pursuing development of a replacement truck designed to withstand roadside bombs while maintaining the maneuverability of the original vehicle. The so-called joint light tactical vehicle, or JLTV, has seen its budget slashed and may soon be terminated.
But the need for a light truck remains, said Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
“As we come out of Iraq, there is still going to be a need for that light mobility special operations vehicle that we suspect will be different from the evolving models of JLTV,” he said. The ideal vehicle would combine the features found in commercial all-terrain vehicles with the survivability of a military armored truck.
“We will struggle to find that solution,” he said.
For special operators and light infantry units, the desired future truck should be mobile, air transportable, and able to accommodate high-tech sensors and communication systems.
“When it comes to vehicles, it doesn’t do any good to buy a vehicle that fits in the airplane, but doesn’t do what the team needs,” said Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, former commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. “If we buy a vehicle that the team needs, it needs to go on the aircraft.”
■ The U.S. Navy has the world’s most sophisticated nuclear-powered submarines, which can stay submerged for months, undetected. But they are expensive, with a price tag of about $2 billion, and their numbers are limited. Naval experts predict that $10 million unmanned mini-submarines one day could fill similar roles that big attacks boats perform today. In a future war, the Navy could deploy dozens of these underwater scouts and collect intelligence on enemy activities rapidly, and without having to worry about sending a submarine’s crew into harm’s way.
Unmanned underwater systems also could become extensions to a submarine, particularly in coastal waters. The Navy for decades has sought to develop underwater unmanned vehicles that would be outfitted with powerful sensors and would help attack submarines safely gain access to areas that typically would be out of reach, such as extremely shallow or mined waters and areas with poor acoustic conditions. But Navy leaders are hoping for improved robots that can operate independently.
“I believe unmanned systems will play an ever larger, more critical and crucial role in the years ahead, particularly in those contested environments,” said former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead.
The Navy operates oceanographic gliders and is developing unmanned underwater systems for mine warfare missions and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. Officials envision a future in which networks of small, unmanned underwater vehicles collaborate with larger manned vessels to execute those missions.
The Navy is developing four classes of unmanned vehicles, ranging from 3-inch to 9-inch diameter man-portable systems to the 36-inch diameter or greater vessel called the large displacement unmanned underwater vehicle.
Besides locating and eliminating mines, unmanned underwater systems could sample water following a disaster where contaminants are a concern. They could be useful in surveying the undersea environment for shifts in depth or for locating debris following earthquakes.
The technology is advancing rapidly, but more work is needed. Roughead said he would like to see an unmanned vessel operate for 70 days.
Naval researchers say the long poles in the tent are energy, reliability and autonomy. Current batteries don’t last long enough, and vehicles still require significant human intervention to stay on course. With the exception of oceanographic gliders, few systems today can operate at sea for more than a few days. Several companies are working on batteries, air-independent propulsion and high-endurance engines. Experts predict breakthroughs will come before the end of this decade.
High-Speed, Bulletproof Power Boats
■ When it comes to open-ocean warfare, nothing rivals the capabilities of the U.S. Navy. It has aircraft carriers, missile-guided cruisers, destroyers and the new littoral combat ship. It also has small riverine craft and patrol boats for operations in inland waterways and rivers. But future conflicts may call for faster, agile, clandestine boats that can move close to shore and access inner harbors. That would require fast, armored boats that can get into dangerous areas and defend themselves from attacks.
The Navy operates a small fleet of 34-foot coastal patrol craft. Sailors employ them to defend ships anchored in deep water and to provide security for aircraft carriers as they sail into ports. But the boats have a tough time when the weather turns rough and sea states become high.
There are plans to build a 62-foot craft, called the force protection-coastal, or FP-C, to replace the 34-foot coastal patrol craft. It would carry a crew of five to seven sailors and have a range between 500 or 600 nautical miles. It would have ballistic protection and the ability to cruise at 25 knots with a maximum speed of 35 knots, and an endurance of more than 24 hours. There would be at least two to three gun-mounts, with one of the stations capable of being remotely operated.
“Our enemies are watching and learning, and will strike again. We owe it to our sailors, marines, coast guardsmen to have the best protection possible,” said Capt. Paul McElroy, commander of Marine Expeditionary Security Group Two — part of the Navy’s maritime expeditionary security force under the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command. “Ideally we would like our boats to have a shallow draft, yet maintain increased stability in higher sea states,” said McElroy.
McElroy cautions that future coastal patrol boats should be easy to maintain and repair.
Finding the right materials to build these boats is a concern. Because aluminum boats typically have welding problems and require depot-level maintenance for most repairs, naval planners are seeking other options. Manufacturers are testing advanced composites that would make boats lighter and stronger. A lightweight propulsion system would offset the added weight of armor. Advanced water jets would provide increased performance and efficiency as well as increased durability.
Anytime Anywhere Communications
■ High-speed mobile broadband is a military holy grail. Soldiers want the ability to communicate, as well as exploit the capabilities of the latest smartphones. FM radios don’t cut it anymore. Troops want the same technology that powers high-speed commercial cellular networks so they can send photos, video and keep track of their unit’s location. But there are still some hurdles in achieving that vision. One is the acute shortage of network bandwidth for deployed troops. The Army has been testing deployable 3G broadband networks that troops can set up quickly in a temporary shelter or aboard a military vehicle. The combination of advanced cellular base stations and mesh networking also could give soldiers tens of megabits per second of data throughput in moving vehicles. The Army sooner, rather than later, must bridge the bandwidth deficiency gap that exists today in combat zones. The contrast between the connectivity that soldiers are accustomed to at home and what is given to them when they deploy is unacceptable, commanders contend.
Experts predict that as 4G networks roll out globally during the next decade, the military will not only benefit from more reliable networks, but it also will be able to use smart radios that can frequency hop and take advantage of unused spectrum.
Cybersecurity is one major concern that has hindered adoption of smartphones, although the National Security Agency increasingly is finding new ways to protect data and devices.
The Army has predicted for some time that smartphones will play an important role in combat, but it is yet unclear just how iPhones and Androids might eventually supplement or replace current combat net radio voice architecture.
In future conflicts, Army officials predict, soldiers at the lowest echelons of command — who would normally not have access to even company-level communications — will have smartphones and tablet computers that connect them to brigade-level networks. In Army-speak, this would give the soldier “reach-back” capabilities to access critical battlefield intelligence.
A state-of-the-art tactical network would give field commanders a huge advantage over any adversary, said the Army’s former chief information officer, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson. Unlike the old days when only division and brigade-level commanders needed access to the latest intelligence, now soldiers at the lowest levels must have accurate information at all times. The lack of information is what creates the fog of war that leads to bad decisions, such as dropping bombs on innocent civilians.
“If they have the wrong information … the consequences become front-page news,” Sorenson said. A modern tactical network would allow commanders — from four-star generals to platoon leaders — to track their troops’ location and the position of the enemy.
Sorenson draws a parallel between the combat advantage that information provides with that of night-vision technology. The Army’s mantra years ago was to “own the night,” he said. Advances in night-vision sensors paid off for the U.S. military, and that same competitive edge is needed on the information and communications side.
Robots That Think for Themselves
■ Remotely piloted aircraft have supplied troops with overhead surveillance as well as the ability to launch precision-guided bombs. Ground robots have also proved their worth, especially in the fight against improvised explosive devices.
One thing air, land and seaborne robotic systems currently have in common is that there is a human controlling them from a distance. In the next war, military leaders want drones that can operate themselves.
For the technology to progress, the machines will have to move away from the current tele-operated model and be able to make decisions on their own.
“The next challenge is to build fully autonomous systems that can interoperate with humans in a very social environment — conversationally,” said Zachary Lemnios, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering.
Industry now needs to put its focus on systems that can move without soldiers, airmen or marines sending commands, so they can be free to perform other tasks.
Autonomy is a key need across every domain where robotic systems operate — land, sea and air, said Lemnios. Robots that vacuum floors in houses move in predictable spaces. But battlefields change from moment to moment. The human brain can function in dynamic environments, reconstruct paths, predict where it needs to go and live adaptively every day, he said. Robots need to be able to do the same and become untethered from their human masters.
“Having systems that operate in the presence of change, in the presence of uncertainty, with enormous complexity is the challenge of the day,” Lemnios said.
Another reason robots need to take this next step has a lot to do with current fiscal realities, said senior officers who deploy the technologies.
Proponents of such systems will have to make the case that robotic systems can save the Pentagon money, said Maj. Gen. Walter R. Davis, deputy director and chief of staff of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
“The enabling capabilities that are provided by unmanned systems is unquestioned right now,” he added. But robotics proponents must show their machines can reduce the number of personnel required on the battlefield.
“For us, everything is about cost-benefit analysis right now,” he added. An example is the unmanned aerial systems realm. Unpiloted aircraft wings require just as many airmen to operate the systems as their manned aircraft counterparts.
“Unmanned systems” is a misnomer, said former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead. There are always humans operating the technology. “We cannot afford to simply take an operator out of a vehicle [and] declare victory when we put an additional 50 people in the back room,” he said.
Cheap Liquid Fuel
■ Any company that can come up with a fuel cheaper than what the U.S. military currently uses, JP-8, will have the world’s largest consumer of petroleum waiting with open arms to purchase it.
A penny-pinching military looking for cost savings could save billions of dollars every year if it could reduce its dependence on the special blend of jet fuel that it uses to power not only its aircraft, but also its fighting vehicles, trucks and generators.
JP-8, originally a fuel intended for aircraft, was adopted for wider use to simplify the logistics of delivering power to the battlefields. The same gas that keeps an F-15 flying runs an Abrams tank.
The services want “green energy” to power their fleets. The Air Force wishes to fly 50 percent of its aircraft using alternative energy sources by 2016. The Navy and Marine Corps have similar goals, but by 2020. The Army is under an executive order to increase the use of non-petroleum fuels in ground vehicles by 10 percent per year.
But the services find themselves in a chicken-or-the-egg scenario.
“I can’t go to the new market until the market exists,” said Gen. Ray Johns Jr., the commander of Air Force Mobility Command.
Biofuels are currently more expensive to produce than JP-8. There aren’t enough customers buying in bulk to reach the economy of scale that would lower the price.
“I don’t know that we can drive the commercial enterprise,” Johns told reporters recently. The Air Force has taken the time and expense to qualify its aircraft on alternative fuels. When and if a supplier can come up with a product that is cheaper than JP-8, Air Mobility Command will be a major customer.
“We’re ready to go. We’re qualified to go. And as it becomes available, we will surely use it,” Johns said.
But if the world’s largest customer for liquid fossil fuels can’t drive the market, who can? The market seems to be stuck in a wait-and-see mode.
The Defense Department’s “leadership role in the development of advanced biofuels and its associated infrastructure are of acute interest and potentially enormous value to the commercial aviation, shipping and auto manufacturing industries,” said a Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate report, “From the Barracks to the Battlefield: Clean Energy Innovation and America’s Armed Forces.”
Several startups, as well as some traditional military contractors such as General Atomics and Honeywell, are investing in biofuel projects in hopes that they can produce affordable renewable energy. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is placing its bets on algae as the feedstock, according to the report. Its investments are classified, but the agency predicts that fuels based on that technology will be cost competitive by 2016. The Navy predicts biofuel costs will reach parity with JP-8 by 2020, the report noted.
Along with lower price, the commercial market will have to prove it can produce the biofuels in the large amounts that the military demands, and that they work in every environment. JP-8, for example, doesn’t freeze in cold climates easily.
Said Johns: “I am looking for the most efficient way to execute my mission. … So find me the least expensive source, and we’re ready to use it.”
Persistent ‘Wide Area’ Surveillance
■ Medium endurance, low-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles have provided the U.S. military with a means to circle over an area of interest for up to one day and keep tabs on suspected insurgents in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Operators can not only watch an enemy plant a roadside bomb, but quietly follow him home, and perhaps lead them to an improvised explosive device factory. One complaint has been the so-called “soda-straw effect.” The field of view is too narrow to take in the whole picture.
The higher a UAV can fly, the wider an angle it can take in.
A Predator flies at about 25,000 feet. The Global Hawk, a high-altitude UAV, soars at about 55,000 feet, and can scope out a much wider view of an area of operation.
But these are expensive aircraft to operate, noted Ed Herlik, an analyst with the Market Intel Group, and a former Air Force officer, whose last assignment was at Air Force Space Command. Predators cost about $9,000 per hour to fly, and Global Hawks come in at $27,000.
Stratospheric UAVs, operating at altitudes of 65,000 feet and higher, would not only be cheaper than the most commonly used unpiloted aircraft, but they would also fulfill operators’ wishes to peer down at wider angles.
Some research-and-development projects are examining the benefits of such high-flying aircraft. One concept looks like a blimp. Another has a wide wingspan. Both use solar power to maintain flights that could last years rather than days.
“When you’re flying at those altitudes, you can see a whole bunch of stuff,” Herlik said. They could also be used to carry communication links.
Stratospheric UAV concepts, like satellites, are meant to be launched once, and never return. Allowing them to be ditched in the ocean takes away the costs and weight of building landing equipment and so on. If there were a sensitive payload aboard, it could be parachuted back to Earth and recovered, he said.
“The Air Force space guys see this as a threat to their satellite budgets; and it is, quite clearly,” Herlik said.
Remote sensing satellites in low-Earth orbit pass over certain areas several times per day, but can’t hover and stare. They are expensive to develop, build and send into orbit and may blow up on the launch pad, he noted.
However, stratospheric UAVs still operate low enough to be in the realm of national airspace, and are fair targets if flown over hostile territory. One advantage the U.S. military has enjoyed while flying remotely piloted aircraft in Afghanistan and Iraq is that they operate in permissive environments. Their utility ends when they cross into the territory of an adversary who is armed with advanced air defenses such as surface-to-air missiles or fighter jets.
That is the current advantage satellites have over UAVs — they pass over hostile nations without breaking the international rules.
Stratospheric UAVs are equally susceptible to air defenses. Even the older-generation SAMs reach 100,000 feet, Herlik said.
“If you look, behave and fly like a fixed-wing aircraft, you’re hamburger,” he said.
He declined to comment on the possibility of a stealthy stratospheric UAV that could fly undetected over denied airspace.
If that wish were fulfilled, it would put spy satellite manufacturers out of business.
— Grace V. Jean contributed to this report.