A New Role for Today's UAVs

Article excerpt

TODAY'S AIR FORCE is smaller than the service of yesterday, but few people would doubt that it has a much greater ability to prosecute an air war-projecting more power, faster, with increased survivability. This is due in part to our abundance of real-time battlefield intelligence and platforms from which to collect that intelligence. With this overwhelming ability to collect information comes disagreement on the best way to employ our intelligence collection and airborne early warning (AEW) platforms. This article offers another view on how to better employ proven AEW platforms and relatively new assets in the Air Force inventory, namely our unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Recently, my class for airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft air-weapons officers received a briefing on today's UAV fleet and its employment. I had listened to lectures on UAVs before, but this time I was more cognizant of the employment considerations of high-value airborne assets (HVAA) such as the E-3 AWACS; E-8 joint surveillance, target attack radar system (JSTARS); and Rivet Joint aircraft. The instructors talked about UAV systems such as the Predator and Global Hawk, stressing their many capabilities for collecting battlefield data. I wondered what we AWACS crew members could do with this collected data to enhance our tactical situational awareness. I was shocked to find out that the answer was not much at all. Since aircraft in the UAV fleet are designed for target tracking, communications relay, electronic intelligence, and search and rescue, why could they not coordinate the collection of information and share it with their larger, manned counterparts?

To explore this question further, I considered an idea from the early 1990s TV show Sea Quest. In this short-lived program, a large submarine vessel, the Sea Quest, received assistance in its day-to-day operations from "whiskers"--small, unmanned vehicles that extended the eyes and ears of the parent vessel. They lived up to their name by providing the fictional ship with constant data, helping it see around corners, cross-check shipborne sensors, and employ ordnance, thus making themselves essential to mission accomplishment. This concept of hardware symbiosis could teach the military a great deal. Indeed, the Navy already has learned from it: in 1996 the USS Chicago tested a whisker system via an ultrahigh-- frequency satellite-communications link.1 The only difference was that it used airborne whiskers-specifically, a Predator UAV aircraft linked to the submarine, giving it detailed imagery one hundred nautical miles deep into enemy territory. The system could also highlight information on surface targets and movements of enemy ships.2 In a sense, the link provided a 15,000-foot periscope for the Chicago.

Putting all this together, I asked myself whether the Air Force could exploit this concept that already has real-world support. Could we use a set of two or three dedicated UAVs to enhance the mission employment of today's AEW platforms? Can an idea from a futuristic Navy be applied to today's Air Force? Given the varied capabilities of UAVs, I think the Air Force can enhance the mission at hand.

To further prove my point, I looked to the Red Flag range at Nellis AFB, Nevada, for ideas that would integrate AEW and UAV platforms in a combat/collection relationship. This range offers sporadic mountains, with valleys spanning the distance between them. The shadows of these ridges provide perfect hiding places for relay stations, troop convoys, and antiaircraft positions. Knowledge of their location is essential for avoidance and targeting by friendly forces; although our AEW platforms were specifically designed to detect such enemy emissions, restraints on those platforms do not always allow this. Sometimes we may miss coverage due to a shortage of aircraft, and sometimes other mission requirements demand orbits that do not optimize our collection capabilities. …