War Urgency Drives Decisions on U.S. Deployment of Drones

Article excerpt

As U.S. military planners prepare to increase the presence of unmanned aircraft over Afghanistan, they should not rush to the conclusion that UAVs are money savers, experts said.

The conventional wisdom about unmanned aircraft is that they save manpower, because pilots are not needed. UAVs keep pilots out of enemy fire, but they do not necessarily save on support and maintenance costs, said Larry Dickerson, senior analyst at Forecast International, a business intelligence firm.

When a military unit deploys UAVs, he said, "you may need more people. ... If you eliminate the pilot, it does nor mean that you eliminate the engine technician or the ground technician."

He also noted that it rakes a fairly long rime to deploy a UAV system. "With the Predator (see related story), it rakes anywhere between 10 to 20 days or even a month. Global Hawk could even be longer," Dickerson said.

The Global Hawk is the Air Force's newest long-range reconnaissance UAV.

The cost of UAVs, additionally, is not low enough to make them disposable, Dickerson said. They range in price from half a million dollars up to $20 million.

"We've critically been lacking the tactical UAVs, the real cheap version for a long, long time," said the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones. As the war in Afghanistan continues, he said he hopes that the production of tactical UAVs will be accelerated.

"The payloads--sensors, airframes and the control and communication network--that are combined to provide the capability that we need are not inexpensive," said a senior defense official, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon. Nevertheless, UAVs are, in military parlance, "attritable," which means that the Pentagon can afford to lose them, the official said, "especially when the alternative is the loss of manned aircraft or an aircrew."

"The risk is nothing and the gain is humongous," said a Northrop Grumman executive, who is involved in a program to develop the Navy's Fire Scout vertical takeoff UAV The executive asked not to be quoted by name, citing company policy.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for the Global Hawk, which, at press time, was reported to be preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan.

The hype surrounding the use of UAVs in the ongoing conflict should not distract from some of the problems that need to be solved in UAVs, said the senior defense official. "There are issues with communications. ... There are issues with combat ID, making sure that you have an ID situational awareness that you might have with a manned platform that you may not have with an operator of a UAV." In this conflict, he added, "there is a lot of situational awareness and a lot of dynamic aspects about the mission that may never be suitable for unmanned aircraft."

Dickerson asserted that unmanned vehicles, no matter how advanced, could not completely replace the manned systems. "You are never going to make machines that smart," he said. There will be a gradual insertion of UAVs into the forces, first freeing pilots from hazardous assignments, said Dickerson. "You don't have to necessarily expose the pilot to hostile fire to see what air defense system is operating in the area."

He warned the UAV industry to avoid promising too much and raising the expectations to unreasonable levels. "If you don't deliver, people will buy other manned systems," he said.

Dickerson said that Global Hawk would be a "good system to have in Afghanistan if the forces actually have a need for it." One has to know exactly what to monitor for, he said. Because the Global Hawk flies at a much higher altitude, "Afghanistan does not have weapons to get it down," Dickerson said. "It would be embarrassing if the Taliban managed to bring down the system."

The RQ-4 Global Hawk is a high altitude UAV (up to 65,000 feet) designed to provide wide area coverage (up to 40,000 nautical miles per day). …