Will Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) replace manned aircraft?
Subject Area - Warfighting
Title: Will Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) replace manned aircraft?
Author: Major Daniel R. Rocha, USAF
Thesis: This paper proposes that UAVs will challenge the efficiencies gained from manned aircraft in future military operations due in part to: the increasing demand for immediate intelligence on the battlefield, limited manned aircraft assets, decreasing defense budgets, increasing operations tempos, and the low tolerance for casualties by the American public.
Discussion: Although UAVs have been around for the last 40 years, they have only recently been aggressively pursued and developed as vital tools for use in military operations. Currently, the UAV program is divided into two major areas: the Joint Tactical UAV Program and the Endurance Program. These two programs will provide tactical and theater commanders with direct, continuous, all-weather intelligence of the battlefield. The Gulf War highlighted the inadequate number of intelligence assets available and the need to pursue UAV development. Although the preponderance of UAV development is currently centered on intelligence, there are numerous other roles being developed. Among these roles are: psychological operations, laser designation and range finding, communications, NBC, and a strike capability. Future military operations will be characterized by "Operations Other Than War" and as such, will demand minimizing costs. With dwindling defense budgets, UAVs will be cheaper to field than conventional manned aircraft. In addition to the costs of increasingly executing "Operations Other Than War," are expanding operations tempos that strain the Services. With this in mind, UAVs will be able to relieve some of the pressures on the high-demand, manned aircraft community. Another factor leading the push for UAVs, is the low tolerance for casualties by the American public. This aversion to casualties is especially low for "Operations Other Than War." By employing UAVs, the US will be able to minimize risks while flying against heavily-defended targets.
Conclusion: The recent meteoric rise of UAV development, highlights an issue of the growing importance of UAVs in the future and leads to the corollary issue of whether UAVs will replace manned aircraft's roles and missions. The bottom line is that the Services still need an organic capability for a continuous, on-demand, all-weather platform to provide intelligence on the battlefield. In addition, the Services must execute these operations quickly, safely, and cheaply. As such, UAVs may be a significant part of the answer since they have proven their combat mettle in Operations DESERT SHIELD, DESERT STORM, and now Bosnia. Once a strike capability is fielded, then the manned aircraft community will be really threatened. UAVs will continue to replace manned aircraft in many areas, but only time and technology will tell how much.
WILL UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLES (UAVs) REPLACE MANNED AIRCRAFT?
UAVs are not the latest and greatest scientific development to explode on the technological battlefield. On the contrary, UAVs have been around for some 40 years and flew missions during the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. UAVs were routinely used to provide electronic intelligence, communications intelligence, and bomb damage assessment (BDA), cheaper and safer than manned aircraft.
Although UAVs have been around for the last 40 years, it has only been recently that UAVs have made headlines and been aggressively pursued by the Services. This paper proposes that UAVs will challenge the efficiencies gained from manned aircraft in future military operations due in part to: the increasing demand for immediate intelligence on the battlefield, limited numbers of manned aircraft assets, decreasing defense budgets, increasing operations tempos, and the low tolerance for casualties by the American public. More specifically, this paper will discuss the issue of UAV development, advertised and demonstrated capabilities, and the potential for UAVs to replace roles and missions currently dominated by manned aircraft.
The Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, (DARO), headed by Major General Kenneth R. Israel, is responsible for the development, acquisition, and support of all airborne reconnaissance systems, and is currently overseeing the development of a mix of tactical and long endurance UAVs that will provide battlespace intelligence dominance for use by theater and tactical commanders. The UAV program is divided into two major areas: the Joint Tactical UAV Program and the Endurance UAV Program. The Tactical UAV Program encompasses the Hunter UAV, Maneuver UAV and the Pioneer UAV. The Endurance UAV Program includes the Predator Medium Altitude Endurance (MAE) UAV, and the High Altitude Endurance (HAE) Program which includes the DarkStar Low Observable (LO) HAE UAV and the Global Hawk Conventional HAE UAV. As Admiral William A. Owens, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated about the unique capabilities of UAVs,
I was looking at Predator [imagery displays] yesterday ... It was flying over an area ... at 25,000 feet. It had been up there for a long time, many hours, and you could see the city below, and you could focus in on the city, you could see a building, focus on a building, you could see a window, focus on a window. You could put a cursor around it and [get] the GPS latitude and longitude very accurately, remotely via satellite. And if you passed that information to an F-16 or an F-15 at 30,000 feet, and that pilot can simply put in that latitude and longitude into his bomb fire control system, then that bomb can be dropped quite accurately onto that target, maybe very close to that window, or, if it's a precision weapon, perhaps it could be put through the window....I'd buy a lot of UAVs in the future.
The first question to ask is what are the capabilities of UAVs? By looking at UAV capabilities, one can grasp exactly what threat UAVs pose to the manned aircraft community's roles and missions. To begin, Maneuver UAVs are designed to support Army and Marine combat units within 30 nautical miles of troops. Also, the Pioneer and Hunter short-range UAVs are designed to support corps, division, and naval operations at ranges of 100 nautical miles. According to DARO, since 1985 the Pioneer has proven its combat mettle by logging over 12,000 hours providing imagery intelligence in the Gulf War, Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia. Moreover, the Hunter UAV is being designed to provide imagery intelligence, direction finding, and communications jamming to land and sea forces from austere locations. The Hunter UAV will have a 100 nautical mile plus range while operating at altitudes up to 15,000 feet for 12 hours. The Army is expected to receive a new version of the Hunter UAV, the Endurance Hunter. This advanced Hunter is a joint project being developed by a civilian company and Israel, and will extend Hunter's flight time from 8 hours to 40 hours, providing Army commanders with longer-surveillance of the battlefield.
The requirement to see the battlefield anytime it is needed by tactical commanders is a major advantage of using UAVs. Tactical commanders will have UAVs organically assigned and at their disposal to employ directly for intelligence support on the battlefield. This organic capability will reduce the tactical commanders' dependence on the limited assets of the manned aircraft community, or provide a first-ever capability to these tactical units.
To fill the requirement for a deep-look and wide-area coverage capability, Endurance UAVs are being developed to support Joint Task Force and Theater Commanders with near-real time intelligence. These Endurance UAVs are designed to operate at medium and high altitudes (25,000 to 65,000 feet), have a 3,000 plus nautical mile range, and are able to remain on station for over 40 hours. The Conventional High Altitude Endurance UAV will provide long-range and long-duration station time, while using its high altitude profile for self-protection. For example, the Predator Long Endurance UAV deployed in support of Bosnia operations in 1995, and provided imagery and real-time intelligence to theater commanders.
Finally, the DarkStar UAV will rely heavily on its low observable and high altitude endurance capabilities to counter threats while providing critical intelligence of heavily defended areas of interest during the initial stages of conflict. Next, the Global Hawk will provide imagery of the battlefield once defenses have been minimized and will use a combination of warning receivers and electronic countermeasures for self-protection. These Endurance UAVs will provide commanders a deep-look capability while keeping critical assets at minimal risk.
Today, the United States' UAV program primarily focuses on intelligence. However, programs are being developed that will employ UAVs in other more aggressive roles. For example, Israel is developing a strike UAV named the Light Defender, and this UAV will be used to search and destroy surface-to-air missile systems. This suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) capability will most certainly have an effect on the future of the manned EA-6Bs and the F-16CJs, the United States' current SEAD assets. Currently, the Services have no plans to develop a next generation of manned SEAD aircraft. Perhaps, the fielding of the Light Defender might lead to an early retirement of current SEAD aircraft. As the Light Defender program illustrates, the US is not the only country pursuing UAV development, countries such as Israel, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Finland are forging ahead into other payload areas. For example, Germany's Taifun antiradar drone is being developed to target radars and ground vehicles. The development of technologies for other UAV roles and missions might begin overseas, but the United States will undoubtedly seek to regain the lead in these emerging technologies. As in the case of Israel's Light Defender Program, the United States Air Force is studying this concept under the Foreign Comparative Test Program.
Having just looked at the capabilities of current and future UAVs, one can start to visualize the possible force enhancing effects of UAVs. However, there are other reasons for the recent push in UAV development. For example, during Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, UAVs showcased their capabilities to fulfill critical requirements for reconnaissance of the battlefield. The successes of UAVs during DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM have propelled the Services to step-up their development and procurement requirements, or be left behind in the rapidly developing UAV technology. For example, the Air Force established a UAV squadron to exploit emerging UAV capabilities.
Another reason for the increased demand in UAV development is the growing need for immediate, easy to obtain intelligence. According to one expert on UAVs,
The reason for this increase in interest and market size is fairly simple: the use of the "vertical dimension" to gather or relay information is becoming vital to successful operations in the post-Cold War era. Moreover, UAVs may start to replace manned aircraft for the transportation and delivery of goods and services under benign, or routine, conditions....[U]nmanned aircraft may perform as effectively and more cheaply than either satellites or manned aircraft. Thus, UAVs complete the array of capability necessary to fully populate this vertical dimension of the rapidly growing information world.
The demand for immediate intelligence of the total battlespace is being driven by the fundamental warfighting principle that the side who can see all and use the intelligence in near-real time will dominate the battlespace. One only needs to remember Sun Tzu's dictum about the importance of intelligence, "Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster."
Currently, airborne reconnaissance is dominated by manned aircraft, but as DESERT STORM demonstrated, there were not enough manned or space-based reconnaissance assets to fulfill the warfighting commanders' intelligence requirements. The requirement to have continuous and complete vision of the battlefield is one that many experts believe will be necessary to win future conflicts. As a military analyst stated about the future of UAVs in battlefield intelligence,
It's not difficult to envision the day when a mother ship...will control a host of UAVs sweeping communications signals, detecting mine fields from 60,000 ft, jamming enemy radars and communications and cuing [sic] boost phase intercepts devices. Linking several UAVs and providing precision timing could create a signals-collecting dragnet, not allowing a single electron to escape the battlefield without detection and geolocation of the emitter...UAVs of the future may deliver the appropriate response, whether it is jamming, an antiradiation missile, directed energy or precision-guided munitions.
The emphasis for systems to provide total intelligence of the battlefield is an admirable requirement, however the information must reach the end-user or the collection of data is a waste of time. After the Gulf War, there were numerous stories of available national intelligence not reaching the user and ending up in a black hole. By employing UAVs directly, commanders can tailor and receive their intelligence requirements in near-real time. One of DARO's main goals is to rapidly bring usable intelligence to the warfighter on the ground.
Another factor contributing to the rapid rise in UAV development is that, UAVs are seen as a major contributor in future military operations (according to most experts), that are likely to be characterized by the term "Operations Other Than War." As a cheaper alternative, UAVs would seem to be the platform of choice for commanders in these types of operations. With this in mind, DARO is developing UAVs for "Operations Other Than War" and for conflicts that will require fast, accurate and responsive intelligence. As DARO's annual report stated about future UAV development,
One of the most important lessons from the Persian Gulf War was the operational need for a family of UAVs, which Congress reaffirmed. 'Operation DESERT STORM pointed to the requirement for a variety of UAVs to meet operational need of the tactical commander.'...UAVs can be ideally used in Operations Other Than War, and the idea of 'urban reconnaissance' for military operations in built-up areas makes a strong case for future vertical take-off/lift capabilities.
The bottom line to the accelerated Armed Forces' requirements for UAVs from DARO's perspective is the need for an adequate number of platforms to provide broad-area coverage, remains on station for an extended period of time, and interacts with other weapon systems to extend the capabilities of UAVs.
To continue, some other reasons for the rapid development of UAV roles and missions include lower costs and reduced losses to aircraft and personnel. As one military analyst stated about UAVs and their inherent low risk and high payoff intelligence returns, "Since UAVs are designed to penetrate and loiter in threat environments deemed too risky for manned aircraft, they are naturals for the cat-and-mouse contests between EW systems and air-defense and other threat emitters, in the view of electronic combat tacticians." Which missions will be too risky for manned aircraft remains to be seen. However, these missions will likely be part of a politically volatile "Operation Other Than War" scenario.
UAVs are also being developed to fill a wide range of other requirements to support warfighting commanders. These other UAV programs will include: psychological operations, environmental sensors, laser designation and range finding, communications, and NBC detection. Furthermore, UAVs will be used to provide precision guidance and BDA for strike forces, thus providing the commander with increased support on the battlefield. Moreover, according to DARO, as UAVs proliferate and missions expand they will be used to support growing transnational problems. These missions will include: counter-narcotics, coastal and border surveillance, humanitarian and disaster assistance, peacekeeping and anti-terrorism operations. UAVs will no doubt make inroads into numerous roles and missions as UAV development continues its explosive technological proliferation.
Another major reason for aggressively pursuing UAV development is the reality of dealing with today's dwindling defense budgets and force structures. The United States must begin to come to grips with massive cuts in both personnel (including aviators) and funding to support future military operations. There are many predictions for the future of the United States' budget and deficit, but most economists will agree that the outlook is gloomy. A Congressional Budget Office report predicts that the current deficit of around 3.6 trillion dollars will almost double by the year 2004, to 6.1 trillion dollars. Also, the United States is predicted to also be running an almost 400 billion dollar deficit.
With this imminent budget crisis in mind, all of the Services are championing some sort of program for "Fighting Smarter with Less Resources" to contend with decreased budgets and personnel. These cuts have forced the defense community to look at other avenues for cheaper, more efficient tools to fight future conflicts, but will UAVs be part of the answer?
One example of the budget scramble amongst the Services to fight leaner and smarter is the development of an Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) by the Air Force. Commenting on this issue and the need to fight future global operations with limited budgets, General Fogleman stated,
The AEF 'was not designed to provide a tool for people to make an argument that we ought to have fewer than ten carriers...Instead, the AEF was created because 'in a world in which we're all going to have less resources, we've got to find a way to satisfy' US global commitments. 'You don't need an aircraft carrier in all parts of the world if there's some other service that's got the ability' to provide a comparable force. There's more than one way to do these chores. Nobody ought to feel threatened by that." 
The fact is that all of the Services are feeling threatened by decreasing budgets and as such, are looking for ways to gain more efficiencies. The bottom line is that UAVs are cheaper than manned aircraft, and this fact alone makes them extremely attractive to the Services having to execute "Operations Other Than War" during periods of scarce funding. Losing a 10 million dollar UAV over Bosnia in support of a peacekeeping mission, is a lot cheaper and easier to justify than a 100 million dollar fighter and pilot!
The next possible reason for the recent interest in UAV development is the increased operations tempos faced by the Services. This rise in operational deployments is primarily derived from support to "Operations Other Than War," and have placed great strains upon the Services to execute the National Military Strategy which calls for assistance to nations all over the world. The National Military Strategy lists numerous roles and missions that the Services can be called upon to support, and will no doubt contribute to the increase in operations tempos. One defense analyst indicated the magnitude of the increase in operations tempo issue by stating that, "since the fall of the Berlin Wall, operations tempo has increased by over 300 percent."
What this high operations tempo means is that, as the Armed Forces have drawn down (aviators included), by over one million personnel over the last several years, the Armed Forces must also contend with dramatic increases in threats and missions. Although previous drawdown programs have included aviators, over the last several years the Air Force has limited most aviators from participating in these programs. The limiting of aviators from participating in Air Force drawdown programs is due to the fact that many aircraft wings are critically undermanned. As a result, the problems associated with increasing operations tempos are magnified in those units experiencing aviator shortages.
To further exacerbate the problem of limited assets, the current National Military Strategy under the heading of enhancements, cites four weapons systems that will contribute to increased surveillance on the battlefield in future conflicts: the Joint STARS, AWACS, RC-135 RIVET JOINT and unmanned aerial vehicles. However, UAVs may have to take up the majority of these missions from the other platforms and programs ironically because of two of these enhancement platforms; the AWACS and RC-135 RIVET JOINT are experiencing some of the highest operations tempos in the Air Force. This fact alone is a good reason for commanders to look towards UAVs as a source for alleviating some of the pressure on high-demand platforms. As Richard Perle, a military strategist under President Reagan stated on the subject of the drawdown in personnel, "the Pentagon will be trading manpower for technology...trading labor for capital...the size of the future force could be cut by 50 percent..." The financial costs and personnel requirements involved executing these "Operations Other Than War" can add up quickly and must be made up somewhere. Perhaps UAVs will be part of the answer.
Another factor that is leading to UAVs taking over roles of manned aircraft is the aversion to casualties by the American public for "Operations Other Than War." As a Rand survey indicated on the issue of American support for "Operations Other Than War,"
...in Somalia, Haiti, and now Bosnia--the sorts of operations that have historically suffered from a low willingness to accept American casualties...prolonged interventions in complex political situations characterized by civil conflict, where US interests and principles are typically much less compelling or clear and success is often elusive at best.
As the United States increases its participation in "Operations Other Than War," the nation's focus on justified casualties heightens the importance of force protection. The necessity to minimize casualties will undoubtedly lead to the increased use of UAVs as part of a force protection plan. This emphasis on force protection is highlighted by the intense media coverage that is lavished upon the military when they execute support for "Operations Other Than War." This attention is especially acute when the Services experience casualties and these scenes are broadcast coast to coast on national television. Military and political leaders are well aware of the power of the media, and as Napoleon once said, "Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets." One only has to remember Captain Scott O'Grady and the media hoopla that surrounded his shootdown and subsequent rescue.
American public support for military engagements is vital in successfully prosecuting any war or operation, especially in an era of tight budgets where support is needed for funding military operations. As such, casualties, both friendly and civilian, must be kept to the absolute minimum. The war in Vietnam is a prime example of what eroded public support can do to the military and an administration trying to prosecute a war. The American public's power to influence foreign and domestic policy is fast and relentless when they want something done. Therefore, UAVs would provide a quick, safe, and cheap alternative for "Operations Other Than War."
As a senior military official stated on the issue of casualties, "We have entered the 'Visual Era.' Our rules of engagement are new -- dominated by the risk that parents will see their sons and daughter killed in real-time on TV...We can't afford casualties." This aversion to casualties is a critical vulnerability that our enemies will continue to target in the future. By using UAVs in more dangerous roles and missions, this weakness can be minimized within the aviation community. Our expeditious retreats in Lebanon and Somalia illustrate the point of American public's aversion to casualties very well. In Somalia, our retreat was ignited when as one foreign policy analyst stated, "Pictures of a dead helicopter pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu...were shown on television and front pages across the country."
Pictures presented so graphically by the media to the American public will determine the level of our participation in future engagements. This fact is so much so that the foreign media has criticized the United States because "television images are shaping American foreign policy." Call it the CNN Factor or the Christiane Amanpour Factor; the point is that future military operations will be under the microscope of the media. Hence, the American public will determine success or failure of these operations.
Another military expert on fighting conflicts is General Charles A. Horner, (retired), Joint Force Air Component Commander during DESERT STORM. He recently listed four lessons we should have learned in the war but didn't, and one of these was the need to minimize casualties. As General Horner stated,
The American people have demonstrated unbelievable tolerance at the losses of sons and daughters in battle when they believe in the cause, but no President or general can overestimate the speed at which patience will disappear if they are perceived to be spending lives foolishly. Public sensitivity to casualties can dominate our political and military decision-making in a crisis...The Gulf War gave me a glimpse into the future of warfare...I saw an American public that expect our wars to be swiftly won and relatively casualty-free.
What better way to minimize aviation casualties in unpopular operations than increasing the use of UAVs which can be operated at great distances and at relatively low risk. In the end, the necessity to execute missions quickly while minimizing casualties in future conflicts are driving factors in the development of these all-seeing, all doing, unmanned platforms.
With UAVs increasing employments in military operations, what does the manned aircraft community see as a primary threat to their existence? The manned aircraft community sees the primary issue with future conflicts is to minimize losses. As one military analyst stated,
In the dangerous world of limited conflict, airspace restriction enforcement and "peacekeeping" operations, attempting to prevent any aircraft losses from hostile actions has become the rule, not the exception. The uproar following the downing of one F-16C over Bosnia, exemplified by White house involvement and worldwide media hype, only reinforces what we learned earlier in Desert Storm: the public and politicians have a very low tolerance for personnel and equipment losses.
In conclusion, development of UAV applications highlights an issue of growing importance in the future and leads to a corollary issue of whether UAVs will replace manned aircraft's roles and missions. On the issue of being replaced by UAVs, the manned aircraft community is taking steps to try to alleviate some of the pressure and risks to their missions. The Services are currently developing numerous self-protection programs. These programs will exploit improved electronic countermeasures such as jammers, chaff, flares, and towed radar decoys. As for developing these new self-protection systems, the issue of funding must be dealt with, and as a defense analyst stated, "Time and budgets will tell how many of these systems will be fielded against the growing sophistication of missile threats." The bottom line is that the manned aircraft community is not going away without a fight. However, politics, technology, and budgets may be too large of a foe for the manned aircraft community.
Furthermore, the issue still remains that the Services need an organic capability for a continuous, on-demand, all-weather platform to provide intelligence of the battlefield for all levels of warfighting down to the tactical level. The fact is that the Services must continue to cope with decreasing military budgets, personnel, and equipment drawdowns, and the need to minimize casualties in future conflicts, all of which benefit by the development of a strong UAV force.
The reality is that UAVs have proven time and again over the last 40 or so years, that they are combat force multipliers and forces unto themselves. UAVs have proven their mettle in Operations DESERT SHIELD, DESERT STORM, and now, Bosnia. It is hard to argue with the proponents of UAVs for their continued emergence as the platform of choice for future battle. Moreover, the development of UAVs for roles such as SEAD will continue to undermine and threaten the existence of the more costlier manned SEAD programs. The technology for such roles may begin abroad, however the United States will not sit idly by and fall behind on such lethal programs.
When the first-ever UAVs demonstrate a precision, low risk, low cost, critical target strike or air-to-air capability, then the manned aircraft community will indeed be vulnerable. The financial cost of losing just one B-2 to strike a heavily defended area, for example in Bosnia as part of a peacekeeping strike mission, will justify sending numerous UAVs to support a politically volatile "Operation Other Than War" mission. Taken all together, there are some strong reasons for relying more heavily on UAVs in future conflicts, but will they replace the manned aircraft community entirely or just augment current forces? Only time and technology will tell.
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