Magazine article National Defense

Cultures Collide: Drones in the Military: Infatuation or True Love?

Magazine article National Defense

Cultures Collide: Drones in the Military: Infatuation or True Love?

Article excerpt


Enjoying much notoriety and acclaim, unpiloted aircraft can expect to remain a growth industry for years to come.

But the military services have yet to come to grips with how unmanned aircraft fit into their traditional organizations, and have yet to overcome the limitations of the new technology, according to an industry expert.

"Some innovations are easier to digest organizationally than others," says James Hasik, an aerospace and defense industry consultant.

The Defense Department deserves credit for rushing the development and deployment of surveillance drones such as the Predator and the Global Hawk, despite huge bureaucratic obstacles, Hasik says.

But in the larger scheme of military weaponry, unmanned aircraft have yet to be fully welcomed into the family. "Integrating unmanned aircraft into a force designed for manned aircraft should be expected to pose challenges," Hasik contends in a book scheduled to be published next month, "Arms and Innovation: Entrepreneurship and Alliances in the Twenty-First Defense Industry."

He cites the Predator as a poster child for how" good ideas can survive, even when confronted by the Pentagon's unfriendly acquisition process.

Before the 2001 Afghanistan campaign, the plane had failed the rather strict operational testing regime to which the Air Force subjects developmental aircraft, Hasik notes. "The Predator, it was known, could not take off in heavy, rain, snow, ice or fog. Its low speed left it rather vulnerable to ground fire, at least at the lower altitudes at which it did its best work. Its sensors work most efficiently at altitudes under 10,000 feet, which puts it easily within the range of anti-aircraft cannons." But the Pentagon did not allow" technicalities such as a negative test report to dampen its enthusiasm. Hasik points out that the design of the Predator B ameliorated many of these problems by increasing the top speed from 120 knots to 220 knots, its payload from 450 to 750 pounds, and its ceiling from 25,000 to 45,000 feet.

An even more significant step was the arming of the Predator with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, which turned the drone into an attack aircraft.

But for all the positive press the Predator has received for clobbering al-Qaida militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, unmanned strikes remain a risky proposition because they cannot easily discriminate friendly from enemy targets, Hasik says.

"A particular concern about the use of armed drones is the potential for collateral damage," he adds. The problem is that drone operators looking at computer screens--unlike traditional fighter pilots in a cockpit--don't have good enough visibility of the battlefield. "In general, removing the pilot from the aircraft arguably decreases his situational awareness," Hasik explains. "The cockpit provides considerably greater immediacy than a comfortable chair and a computer monitor hundreds or thousands of miles from the battle."

Pilots in the cockpit tend to do better at distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants on the ground, says Hasik.

Another considerable limitation to the use of unmanned aircraft is the scarcity of satellite radio bandwidth, he notes. Even though the Air Force is planning to maintain a fleet of more than a hundred Predators, it will hardly be able to fly them simultaneously.

Hasik recalls that plans for large numbers of UAVs were laid in the late 1990s when huge private investments in worldwide communications infrastructure suggested that up to 1,000 communications satellites might be available within 10 years to carry all the required communications traffic. …

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