In the Future, Drones Will Have to Do More Than Spy and Shoot
Efforts continue to outfit more unmanned aircraft systems with weapons. And the day is coming when UAS will carry cargo and people in and out of war zones, officials said Dec. 16 at an Army Aviation Association of America conference in Arlington, Va.
Experts have questioned how useful remotely piloted aircraft will be once the United States leaves Iraq and Afghanistan, where the machines have had free rein of the skies. Officials acknowledge that they don’t know how effective these systems will be against adversaries with sophisticated air defenses and drones of their own.
But concerns about future enemies hasn’t stopped the U.S. military from buying more drones. The Army continues to purchase small aircraft at the request of soldiers in Afghanistan. The demand has the service putting the final touches on requirements for an entire family of UAS that can be launched by hand.
The military’s use of unmanned aircraft systems is not expected to slow down, despite FAA restrictions that limit training at home in the national airspace.
Expected budget cuts just means that the military will have to figure outhow to do more with the drones it already has.
“There will be fewer reasons to send a manned [aircraft] out there,” said Rusty Weiger, deputy program executive officer for Army aviation.
Unmanned aircraft already perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications functions. The larger ones also have been used to fire weapons at insurgents and terrorists. Now weapons are being made lighter so they can be launched from smaller UAS.
The Marine Corps has made the decision to arm the Shadow drone, which can carry munitions that weigh 25 pounds or less. The Army also must take a harder look at doing the same, said Col. Robert Sova, Army Training and Doctrine Command capabilities manager for UAS.
It is not a stretch to say that unmanned aircraft will take over many functions now carried out by manned helicopters, the colonel said.
“We may not like it because we don’t understand it, but there are things a Shadow can do that an Apache can’t do and a Kiowa can’t do,” he said.
Eventually, UAS will perform both assault and medical evacuation missions, albeit after thorough moral and ethical discussions, Sova said.
“If it’s a life or death situation ... what does it matter if there’s somebody sitting in the cockpit operating it? Because there is somebody operating it. It is manned, it just doesn’t happen to be on the same platform,” he said.
“The next generation … will have the culture that allows them to feel comfortable more with the arming and the weaponized and firing off of unmanned [aircraft],” Weiger said. “It takes a while to grow into some of these things. Unmanned cargo hasn’t even started yet. There are things we can grow into that haven’t even started.”
Based on soldier feedback, it is clear that there are more ways in which UAS could be used in combat, Weiger said.
“There are so many good ideas and so many different things we could be chasing, you’ve got to keep it scoped as to what gets the most bang for the buck,” he said.
Unmanned aircraft are not changing “the way we fight,” Sova said. “They’ve changed it.”