Shine Starting to Wear Off Unmanned Aircraft

By Sandra I. Erwin
Unmanned aviation has enjoyed a decade-long honeymoon, during which the military poured billions of dollars into new drone fleets and the media ballyhooed their deadly precision in combat.

Although unmanned aviation is here to stay in the military — and is rapidly capturing new customers in the civilian world — drones are taking plenty of fire these days. Military analysts have challenged the Pentagon’s large investment in unmanned aircraft at the expense of high-end combat systems that will be needed to fight future wars. Other experts are questioning the idea that unmanned aviation has revolutionized warfare. Many critics point out that drone strikes have weakened, rather than strengthened national security, as they have stirred anti-American sentiment.

Air warfare experts, meanwhile, have soured on unmanned aircraft as weapons that would help the United States win future wars. The fleet that exists today was not built to survive in “contested” airspace where enemies would deploy anti-aircraft radar and surface-to-air missiles.

Today’s workhorse unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, are “non-stealthy, and thus can only operate in permissive airspace,” said the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. A new study contends that U.S. air forces are out of balance because most of the procurement money has been spent on drones. The military UAV fleet has ballooned from 170 in 2001 to more than 11,300 aircraft of various sizes and configurations, the study said. The Air Force cadre of UAV pilots has grown from 400 in 2008 to about 1,350 in 2013.

A surprising assessment from the RAND Corp. pours cold water on the conventional wisdom that drones are “transformative” weapons of war that are on a par with the advent of airpower or even the atomic bomb.

Despite their considerable benefits, said RAND, “armed UAVs are rarely transformative. Many of the capabilities of armed UAVs of all sizes can be found in other weapon systems, although the UAV may offer some advantages.” Helicopters, cruise and ballistic missiles, and manned aircraft can perform many, if not most, armed UAV functions, analysts noted. “Even the poster child for armed UAVs — fighting al Qaida–linked terrorists and Taliban insurgents — demonstrates this point. The United States possesses several alternatives to UAVs, and has employed them all at various times.

Military experts have warned about the proliferation of drones and their future use by U.S. enemies. But for terrorist groups, suicide bombings or buried explosives would be “simpler and more effective than armed UAVs,” said RAND. “It is noteworthy that outside Hezbollah, which is more a mini-army than a classic terrorist group, terrorists in general have not expressed interest in acquiring and using these systems.”

If the United States intends to give UAVs a prominent role in future wars, the current technology will need vast improvements, experts said. “In most situations, long-range armed UAVs like Predators and Reapers are relatively easy to shoot down, even with 1950s era air defense systems,” RAND noted. Even smaller drones operating in a “hunter-killer” role need a radio link to their controller and such links are easily jammed. The study concluded: “As the vast majority of the world’s militaries possess air defenses, using large numbers of armed long-range UAVs similar to current models would be almost impossible to do successfully on a regular basis in a conflict environment.”

Defense Department officials also have raised red flags about deficiencies in UAV ground stations. Current stations were built hastily for combat deployment and come up short in “human systems integration,” said Mica R. Endsley, chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force. That means ground stations were not designed with the human operator in mind. “One of our big challenges are ground control stations,” she told a gathering of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in Arlington, Virginia.

Ground stations should be viewed as “remote cockpits,” she said. “But most were built by engineers for preliminary testing, not for human control. They got pressed into service prematurely,” said Endsley. Many ground stations are operator-unfriendly and contribute to unmanned aircraft crashes, she said. “We’ve had a significant number of mishaps associated with human factors. … Human factors from cockpits were never applied well to ground control stations,” she said. “Initially the thought was, ‘These are unmanned aircraft, we don’t need to worry about human factors if we’re not going to have people involved.’”

But UAV operators need as much “situational awareness” as manned aircraft pilots, she added. In ground controls stations, “You don’t have the contextual information that you would have in a cockpit.” In the future, said Endsley, the remote cockpits need as much attention in human-systems integration as manned aircraft.

The most widespread backlash against drones has been over civilian casualties. The U.S. government has insisted that drone campaigns cause minimal civilian casualties. But a recent study by the non-profit think tank CNA Corp. shows that civilian deaths from drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan are higher than reported. Official statements describe a drone platform as “surgical with respect to civilian casualties,” the CNA study said. In Afghanistan, drone strikes in 2010 and 2011 were 10 times more likely to result in civilian casualties than engagements from manned platforms. The aircraft, themselves, are not to blame, CNA analysts noted, but lack of operator training and human errors in targeting contribute to the problem.

The immediate future, nonetheless, is bright for unmanned aviation, at least according to Pentagon spending forecasts. Bloomberg Government projects the Defense Department will nearly double its annual drone procurement budget to $15.5 billion over the next five years. UAV development and procurement would rise over the next couple of years and remain strong through the next five years, even as many other parts of the defense budget are flat or declining. About $8.8 billion, or 57 percent of the $15.5 billion in drone spending through fiscal 2019 would be used to buy UAVs for military forces, Bloomberg projected. Most of the Air Force’s $4 billion in procurement funds would buy 83 MQ-9 Reapers and upgrade the existing fleet. The Navy plans to spend almost $3.2 billion of its $3.8 billion UAV procurement budget to buy 16 MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance aircraft.

It is clear that the Pentagon is not backing away from unmanned aircraft, and for valid reasons. They carry no risk to the pilot and enable covert operations in areas where the U.S. government would otherwise not send aircraft. UAV endurance is also a big plus, as they can loiter for much longer periods than humans.

There is no doubt that UAVs offer many attractive benefits, but their status as U.S. weapons of choice appears to be in jeopardy.

Topics: Defense Department, Defense Watch, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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