Unmanned aerial vehicles have become a potent portion of the U.S. Air Force inventory and an indispensable weapon in the global war on terror.
But a budget crunch and turf wars with old-guard pilots could threaten progress made during 10 years of combat, experts said.
“There’s not going to be a way of putting this genie back in the bottle,” retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph W. Dyer told National Defense. “The world has changed. That doesn’t mean advocates of today’s manned aircraft won’t try to put it back in the bottle. But it ain’t going.”
The Defense Department is aiming for greater integration of all unmanned systems, to include aerial vehicles, submersibles and ground robots, according to the Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, a Defense Department report detailing the use of UAVs through fiscal 2036.
For the Air Force, the biggest challenge is figuring out how UAV procurement relates to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, said Peter Singer, senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative. The Air Force’s desired procurement numbers have not changed for the troubled next-generation fighter while program costs have ballooned. At some point, Air Force buyers will have to make a decision on which platforms to buy and how many.
In a Jan. 5 press conference outlining the Obama administration’s new defense strategy, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other officials were tightlipped about potential cuts to the F-35 program. They deferred all questions about the costly aircraft until the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal is released in February.
However, they were less reticent about areas where the department would increase investment. Unmanned systems and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies were on their list of items that may see funding boosts rather than cuts.
While the F-35 has been in development, the Air Force has added more than 300 strike-capable Reaper drones to its inventory. But the Reaper is flying and F-35 is not, Singer added. He expects an alteration in procurement numbers for the F-35 before 2020.
Nothing is certain until UAVs become programs of record.
“In the past, these systems were primarily funded out of contingency operations,” said Singer. “So they were not directly competitive with manned systems. That is starting to change.”
The 25 most expensive Defense Department programs of record share one thing in common — none of them are unmanned.
To ensure their continued development and integration, UAVs must “knock someone off the list,” Singer said. “It’s going to have to be an existing program of record, with its own office, with its own tribe, with its own factory.”
UAV programs could hack away at funding for F-35, but Dyer warned of scaling back fighter procurement before unmanned technology has evolved to fill the gap. As it stands, unmanned aircraft have flown only in uncontested airspace. As U.S. military focus shifts to the Pacific, the Air Force could be confronted by enemy fighters in unfriendly skies, a mission UAVs aren’t yet designed to handle.
In that arena, Dyer, now chief operating officer of iRobot, likened the challenge to “the first principle of wing walking.”
“You don’t let go of the plane you’re holding onto (JSF) until you’ve got something else to hold onto,” he said. “JSF is a necessary program. I wish it were under cost and ahead of schedule, but it’s not. It may still be a necessary stepping-stone. Rarely, even with a disruptive technology, do you totally let go of the old one even though you’ve got the new one.”
Still, the Air Force risks trailing in a global race to modernize if it loses momentum in developing drone technology by returning to an overwhelming focus on manned aircraft, Dyer said. If the United States doesn’t fully embrace the role of unmanned aerial vehicles and become a top manufacturer of the systems for both commercial and civilian use, a rival nation could usurp its primacy of the skies.
The progression toward a robust unmanned-vehicle fleet reached an inflection point this year. For the first time in its history, the Air Force trained more UAV pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
The service currently has 1,028 UAV pilots and 743 sensor operators. It will need at least 2,110 pilots and 1,479 sensor operators to staff its projected fleet by fiscal 2015, said a September Air Force report to Congress on the future of its unmanned aerial systems.
The Air Force had 255 active Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper drones in its inventory in fiscal year 2011. That number is expected to grow to 420 by fiscal 2017, according to the report.
Remotely piloted aircraft have burst onto the scene much in the way other revolutionary weapons, like machine guns before World War I, did. The technology has outpaced its attendant doctrine and strategic uses, Singer said.
It is up to Pentagon officials and farsighted Air Force leaders to embrace UAV technology and guide their integration into the future, said Singer. Though they have been used to great effect in Iraq, and are still flying in Afghanistan and elsewhere, UAV technology is in its infancy, he said. Its limitations and vulnerabilities today will not hamstring UAV mission sets for long.
“Right now, we’re in the nineteen-teens relative to manned aviation,” Singer said. “The common mistake historically is that the first generation is the way it will always be. We’re going to figure this out, but almost every new technology isn’t originally set up the optimal way.”
Currently, each unmanned aerial vehicle is flown by one remotely located pilot, an arrangement that is “inefficient and expensive,” Dyer said.
Dyer, who last served as commander of Naval Air Systems Command, and was responsible for engineering and analysis of unmanned aerial systems, believes “the definition of what [makes] a great pilot is going to change.”
“The Air Force and Navy will always have [fighter and bomber] pilots, but you can debate whether future operators will be airborne,” Dyer said. “But a great pilot in 2020, is going to be the guy who flies an airplane and concurrently commands a fleet of unmanned vehicles. I happen to believe that a swarm of unmanned systems controlled by a manned system will have situational advantages.”
Increased integration and teaming does not come without risks. Overburdening helicopter and jet pilots with tasks and information creates safety hazards. Therefore, both military officials and industry engineers are giving drones greater autonomy in flight.
“Already many of these unmanned systems are not remotely piloted in the traditional sense of the term,” Singer said. “Some of them are more managed than piloted.”
Drones can already fly and spy on their own without a pilot directly supervising. The Navy’s stealthy X-47B built by Northrop Grumman demonstrated that ability in October and is being developed to autonomously land on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier.
With air-to-air refueling technology, it could theoretically stay aloft for days at a time. UAV operators could soon set them to monitor an area, leave their workstations and return when a desired target is acquired or an emergency occurs. They could be programmed to alert operators when a certain building’s door is opened or be set to follow footprints to an insurgent hideout, Singer said. But drone technology hasn’t made it to that point yet.
UAVs currently operate at “level one” integration where the information they gather is interpreted by a remote operator, then communicated to the pilot of a manned aircraft or to troops on the ground. Some operate at “level two,” where the drone’s video feed is directly linked to the flat-panel display of a manned aircraft.
As technology progresses to level three, pilots or copilots of manned aircraft will take control of the drone’s sensors. At level four, aircraft pilots will control the drone’s flight and firing mechanism. Ultimately, with level-five teaming, manned aircraft crews will take complete control of their partner drones to include takeoff, landing and flight and fire control.
The Army and Navy, to some extent, are already progressing down this evolutionary path. Army scout helicopter squadrons are being paired with General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones to aid in target acquisition and reconnaissance missions. The first such manned-unmanned team will be deployed to Afghanistan this year, said Command Sgt. Maj. Lebert Beharie, who is assigned to the Army’s 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. Beharie spoke at Helicon Summit East, hosted by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement, on integrating unmanned with rotary-wing aircraft.
The Navy is parsing deployment of its Fire Scout rotary-winged drones along with UH-60 Blackhawks aboard its Littoral Combat Ships. The Fire Scout, built by Northrop Grumman Corp., is set to deploy this year under a military assessment trial, Navy Capt. Douglas Ten Hoopen, said at the conference.
Though to some degree necessary for such visionary teaming of UAVs with manned aircraft, questions arise regarding how much autonomy drones should be given.
There are ethical concerns surrounding whether they will identify and attack an insurgent without immediate permission from a human. International law has not caught up to the technology on that score, Singer said.
The reigning maxim in drone technology is “man-in-the-loop” where a human must at some point give a command if live ordnance is to be deployed against a target. The question remains at what point should the human master give the command.
“The idea of man-in-the-loop has many definitions,” Singer said. “Cruise missiles can do target recognition. Does that make them drones? Is it necessary to guide munitions to their ultimate destination?”
While ethicists weigh that question, the competition is on to acquire and advance drone technology. The United States is not the only player in what is shaping up to be a global unmanned-systems arms race.
At least 45 other nations are buying or building robotic systems for land, sea and air. The Chinese recently had a fly-off that demonstrated an unmanned aerial combat vehicle they intend to eventually land on a carrier deck and arm with air-to-surface weapons. The Chengdu Pterodactyl I is a Predator drone knock off, but likely does not boast technology equal to its U.S. counterpart, Singer said. South Korea also has some UAVs under development. Even non-state actors have caught on to the trend. Thieves in Taiwan recently used a drone to pull off a heist, Singer said.
“We’re still ahead with this technology,” Singer said. “But whether it’s technology or war, there’s no such thing as a permanent first-actor advantage. We should not rest on our laurels. We have to assume we’re not the only ones operating these systems.”
The United States led the world first in agriculture, then aerospace and later information technology. Dyer believes it can be the leader in development of unmanned systems of all sorts, if the technology is embraced by the military — creating a ready market.
“South Korea, Israel, China, Singapore — these folks are nurturing an industry and we’re still searching for an industrial strategy,” he said.