Magazine article National Defense

Shine Starting to Wear off Unmanned Aircraft

Magazine article National Defense

Shine Starting to Wear off Unmanned Aircraft

Article excerpt

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. "Iri 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. …

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