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What role will unmanned aerial systems play in America’s future warfighting arsenal?

Mon, 12/23/2013 - 3:35pm

What role will unmanned aerial systems play in America’s future warfighting arsenal? Will UAS ever completely replace manned aircraft? Why or why not?

Brian Posner, System Engineering, Sikorsky Aircraft Company

From my seat here in the trenches of vertical lift aircraft development, UAS will play a very large role in America’s warfighting arsenal.  Our government customers are pushing hard for inclusion of autonomous or remote control operation in vertical lift aircraft currently planned or in development.  With the assortment of sensor systems currently available, whether a pilot is in the aircraft or not, does very little to affect the information available for mission effectiveness.  For many mission types and environments, removing safety of the pilot and crew from a situation greatly increases the options available to a battlespace commander.

I see remote operation as the next big wave.  Full autonomy is inevitable but not nearly as imminent.  It is currently possible to program an aircraft for standard flight profiles but the range of perturbations is so large, accounting for route selection, station keeping, evasive maneuvering, etc that the complexity is still too great for practicality.

As soon as development and delivery costs fall below the measurable value of a piloted aircraft, we will see a huge proliferation in unmanned aircraft.  As to whether UAS will ever fully replace piloted aircraft, I see it as inevitable but very long term.

Jon Connell, IESNA, MIEEE

It seems that we are standing at yet another military technology watershed. Just as the battleship effectively died in 1941, it seems that manned aircraft will eventually go the same way as the battleship, cannonball and longbow. In my opinion, inside two decades regular Army fighting ground forces will virtually disappear too.

For now at least the Pentagon tells us that autonomous machines will not be permitted to make kill-decisions. Based on historical precedent that policy will likely eventually change – at least as soon as drones start to battle drones it will. Something we can expect to see inside a few years — an eventuality more likely determined by the location of future conflicts than by the availability of technology or fundamental willingness to change policy. It is not too difficult to imagine some general circa AD 1400 describing cannon as remote and impersonal in comparison to cold steel — and therefore immoral. The kind of thinking that historically goes away rapidly when a serious conflict erupts.

Electronic counter-measures will  obviously be critical in an automated conflict. High tech communications can be defeated by vast quantities of low-tech machines. I see this as a likely technology consequence if a future adversary were for instance a relatively low tech nation — mass quantities of low cost drone EMP and ECM weapons — likely of the swarming variety.

One important issue to consider as we move through this change: An effective autonomous robotic fighting force could potentially create a “Maginot Line” false sense of security. >>France’s “impenetrable” WW1-style defensive wall, easily skirted by fast moving German light infantry and tanks in 1940. As fighting technology changes the rules of war change too.

On a related theme, and looking a decade++ out as autonomous swarming machine technology filters out into the mainstream, homelands could become as vulnerable as front-line troops and indeed may even become the only politically sensible flesh and blood target in some future conflict. War is traditionally fought over possession of land, but the last century tells us that modern warfare is expansive and that tit for tat attacks directly impact homelands as much as they do front-line fighters as long as there is an available military route to carry those attacks out effectively.

Today’s drones are typically designed to take superiority in a conventional theater (as far as we know anyway). Tomorrow’s drones may need to be deployed to counter drone adversaries at home. Consider the possibility — in say 2 decades — of 10,000 low-cost, low-tech killer quadro-rotors flying down the streets of your home town for a moment to see the implications.

My own long-shot hope is that emerging technology may perhaps someday in the not too distant future make automated mass destruction so trivially simple and simultaneously sufficiently difficult to counter that we all have to start finding a means of political last resort other than warfare. A man can dream.

I close as I started — we stand at a watershed.

Bharat Shenoy, Littelfuse

Many of our aerial warfare and surveillance operations are now conducted in regions where we might not necessarily have air support operations near-by or they are in countries where we do not want the world to know we are conducting operations. The loss of a pilot is never something an air-wing wants to hear about, however, the capture of a pilot behind enemy lines when that hostile country does not have diplomatic relations with the U.S. can be even more damaging. The goal of pilot safety and safeguarding of human life is a key aspect of the drive to use these UAS solutions more frequently. It is really the technology advancements that have made this possible. The advancements in jet engine technology to make smaller, more efficient engines is allowing these UAS to be longer range and smaller in size. Electronics advancements such as GPS, RF communications, sensor processing power, and memory/storage, have made the UAS a much more capable and versatile platform. Not only can a UAS be used to perform a precision air-strike within minutes of intelligence identifying the location of the target, but it can also perform valuable intelligence gathering on a continuous basis using a variety of sensing technologies.

Rodney Sinclair, ECN Reader

One of the key aspects to warfare is economics. You want to spend a lot less money damaging your adversary than the cost of the damage you inflict. Your adversary, particularly if they're poor, wants to create as much damage as they can and to make you look as bad as possible when you respond or when you mess up when you respond. This economic aspect also relates to the cost of getting adequate information about your adversary to effectively engage them.

A few quick "Google" searches show that the $223M Global Hawk, a surveillance platform, has a SAR mode with a range of 100 km. The Chinese HQ-9 SAM missile has a range of 200 km, so this expensive unmanned platform will be useless against adversaries with modern air defense systems and it doesn't provide useful information against guerrillas such as al Qaeda.

Predator has a unit cost of $4M and can fire Hellfire missiles.  As with Global Hawk, it won't be effective against countries with modern air defense systems.  It has been repeatedly used to attack anti-Afghanistan insurgents in Pakistan, but, because of the blast radius of the missile warhead, lots of innocent bystanders have been killed, so this system fails the metric of avoiding looking bad when you attack your adversary.

Self-protection/assassination weapons such as the Switchblade missile cost $40K to $50K, but their battlefield effectiveness has not been reported.  If effective they may be worth the price.

The real problem with most unmanned systems is that they are trying to avoid the human cost of warfare.  Fighting involves putting people in dangerous places, either to exchange fire or to gather intelligence, and it involves people dying.  The current political climate in the US regards this human cost as unacceptable, so we're spending a lot of money developing machines that are not effective in terms of performance or in terms of economics.

This isn't a new phenomenon.  Before the Civil War the peace-at-all-costs parties preferred allowing slavery to expand than the cost of abolishing slavery.  Now we do things like run away from Somalia when a few soldiers are killed and we get unrealistic expectations about battlefield deaths when the death rate of soldiers in battle is about the same as their death rate from normal driving accidents and such during the first Gulf War.

What we really need to do as a society is to decide whether or not we're willing to accept the human cost of warfare instead of avoiding the issue by looking for electromechanical saviors.

Tom Freund, ECN Reader

1 - What role will unmanned aerial systems play in America’s future warfighting arsenal?

UAS's will gradually deploy incremental levels of autonomy performing either:

(a) single unit, long endurance, missions with or without remote control center coordination, or

(b) multiple unit, coordinated operations with or without manned aircraft

The key here is deploying a long-term. evolutionary, on-going program focused on achieving verifiable application of autonomous functions and effective sensor packages

2 - Will UAS ever completely replace manned aircraft?

No. Although more autonomous functions will be gradually deployed in UAS's, manned aircraft will always play a key role in providing coordination and support to  UAS's.

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