Unmanned Aviation: Fad or the Future of Warfare?
These weapons have endured up-and-down cycles that were shaped both by shifting national security requirements and by Pentagon politics, according to Thomas P. Ehrhard, a retired Air Force colonel and now an advisor to the secretary of the Air Force.
Some of the most sophisticated UAVs ever acquired by the U.S. military were conceived and built in secret, decades before anyone had ever heard of the Predator or the Global Hawk. UAVs became counter-spy weapons during the Cold War. Others were designed to keep an eye on Vietnam and China in the early years of the Vietnam War. The history of UAV programs shows a pattern of boom and bust, as aircraft programs got the ax after wars were over.
Ehrhard documents all this in “Air Force UAVs: The Secret History,” a Mitchell Institute report that serves as a reminder that weapons that one day are ballyhooed as must-haves, the next day can become military acquisition detritus. He also tries to debunk the myth that the Air Force has been an enemy of UAVs because they were regarded as competition to manned aviation. Many UAV programs that showed promise and utility in war ultimately died not because the Air Force purposely killed them but because they could not justify their cost vis-à-vis other weapons systems.
“Over the past 60 years, the Air Force has been building UAVs,” Ehrhard said last month at an Air Force Association forum, where his book was unveiled.
“The history of Air Force UAVs has been largely neglected,” he said. The study covers 22 major programs, though there were many more. Between 1954 and 2000, the Air Force was responsible for 66 percent of those systems. “That does not sound like a service that has neglected this innovative technology,” Ehrhard said. “The UAVs of the 1960s put today’s UAVs to shame,” he said. “We were flying at Mach 3 plus in operational sorties over China in the 1960s. We don’t have anything like that today.”
The omnipresent Predators and other UAVs in current conflicts would lead observers to believe that remotely-piloted and unmanned aircraft will secure permanent status as essential tools of war. That notion should be questioned, however, Ehrhard contends.
“UAVs have been throughout history a cyclical phenomenon, not progressive,” he said. Interest in UAVs has fluctuated. They’re in, then they’re out, both for institutional and technological reasons, said Ehrhard. During the 1970s they became popular. So why did they become unglued? It wasn’t because the Air Force wanted them gone, he said. One problem was that the Air Force could not fly them in European airspace for safety reasons. “Is that not a problem we still have today? This is still an issue: how to get UAVs incorporated into the way we do civilian airspace control,” said Ehrhard. An overcrowded airspace is also a concern in wartime. If the U.S. military is serious about deploying more UAVs, it has to fix the congestion problem, he said. “Ask an AC-130 pilot” flying over Afghanistan. “He’s not looking for surface-to-air missiles, he’s looking for Predators.”
Industry and military analysts are assuming that the UAV market has taken off and will “continue into the sunset” as technology improves, Ehrhard said. Especially as money becomes tighter, UAVs will be in contention for funding with other systems, and they won’t be able to survive purely on their gee-whiz appeal, he noted. They will have to compete with manned alternatives, cruise missiles and satellites.
The best hope for UAVs retaining a secure spot in the Defense Department’s future budgets is the Air Force’s staunch advocacy, Ehrhard said. “In order to realize what UAVs can do and be, you have to be a good advocate,” he said. “One of the strong messages in my study is that systems don’t go through the minefield of acquisition by their intrinsic good.”
UAV supporters have to be invested, he said. The Air Force’s “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan” that was published last year and projects technological improvements out to 2047, is proof of a “maturing Air Force constituency that was championed by [now retired] Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the vice chief of staff for intelligence, who’s been aggressive about improving the system.”
Under the cyclical pattern that UAV programs have followed, they could now be headed for a downturn that would start when U.S. forces leave Iraq and Afghanistan. But Ehrhard said this next phase might not necessarily be bad news for UAVs. “My sense is that remotely piloted aircraft have gained a foothold and a constituency,” he said. “We have units, wing commanders. This is what they do. It has a much firmer foothold in institutional terms.”
Before the current UAV craze started in 2001, unmanned aircraft were niche programs, and many were incognito.
UAVs had come under the spotlight in the mid-1980s as part of the post-Vietnam acquisition debacle that resulted in the termination of many programs. Congress wanted more joint-service collaboration and criticized the Defense Department for not focusing on aerial-surveillance technology. The result was the creation of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office. “Recon had been a redheaded stepchild mission,” Ehrhard said. DARO became the UAV advocate, but the services were only peripherally involved. “They were suspicious of everything that DARO did, Congress was suspicious,” he said. The services had to fund DARO’s programs, and that created tension. “UAV programs were developed willy-nilly without service input, buy-in or constituency,” said Ehrhard. As a result, “they went the way of the buffalo.” DARO was disbanded in 1998. There were some “awful” systems that came out of the DARO era, but those that survived include the Predator and Global Hawk.
Ehrhard credits former Air Force chiefs of staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman and Gen. John Jumper as mavericks who kept UAV programs alive through the tough years. Fogleman fought for the Air Force to keep flying UAVs so the Army wouldn’t end up owning that mission, Ehrhard said. Jumper wanted the Predator to be equipped with a laser designator for close-air support. That led to the next step, which was to arm the UAV with a Hellfire missile. “They turned the Predator into something it was never designed to be,” Ehrhard said.
The conundrum the Air Force now faces is how to make unmanned aircraft relevant in future wars, where adversaries are expected to be armed with advanced air defenses and surface-to-air missiles. Current UAVs only can fly in uncontested airspace. There is a need for a loitering reconnaissance aircraft that can operate in “denied areas,” said Ehrhard. Back in 1990, the Defense Department’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council asked for such an aircraft, and to this day nothing has been deployed, he noted. A stealthy unmanned plane called Sentinel was spotted in Afghanistan, and the Air Force has acknowledged it exists, but its scope and capabilities are classified.
A superdrone capable of penetrating China or Iran’s air defenses may be in the works, but we would not know about it.
One theme that emerges from Ehrhard’s study is that for more than 60 years, groundbreaking technology has been produced, but under so much secrecy that military officials during the Cold War were afraid to deploy systems to avoid tipping off the Soviets that the Pentagon had a new toy.
Companies such as Lockheed and Boeing have been in the UAV game for a long time, “but nobody knows it because they were done in the black,” Ehrhard said.
Some of the most avant-garde systems eventually turned up at museums.
So, can UAVs keep their momentum going? Ehrhard suggests that it will take a long-term financial commitment. Although the perception is that UAVs are cheap, the ones that the Defense Department will need for high-end warfare are not, he said. Critics have blasted the Global Hawk because it costs two or three times more than an F-16 fighter. But if the Pentagon wants a system that can fly for extended periods in sensitive missions, reliably, it is going to be expensive, said Ehrhard. And even the pricier systems do crash, although outsiders don’t realize that UAVs are designed with a specific failure rate and usually they stop working when they’re supposed to.
Another misconception is that UAV programs must be “joint” to be successful, he said. Several projects failed in the past because the Air Force and the Navy tried to merge their requirements into a single aircraft and it just didn’t work, said Ehrhard. “We’ve got to put all the Navy stuff that is required for shipboard operations. Then it becomes a short- to medium-range UAV that can’t do its job exactly right.”