Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Drone Drone

Over at Lex's place, there was much talk about the use of unmanned aircraft, the ethics of warfare using unmanned systems, and the different attitudes between the Navy and Air Force over the programs.  While the USAF decided nearly 2 years ago to not push for a new class of UAVs,the Navy had already gone "all-in" on the UCAS and MQ-8B Fire Scout UAVs.  At that time, the junior service planned to rely on upgrading its existing fleet of Reapers and Predators.  Whereas the Navy had spent over $800M on just the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle before it even went to the boat.

MQ-1B Predator
MQ-9 Reaper

X-47B UCAS-D Approaching USS George H.W. Bush at the 180 

UCAS at the end of CAT 2.

The X-47B UCAS Demonstrator has had some noteworthy successes, both ashore and at sea, with the system completing catapult launches and arrested recoveries on schedule.  The Fire Scout is a bit more mature with a deployment to Afghanistan under its belt, but integration with the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) awaiting both ships and mission packages.

Air Force may just understand that the fiscal environment isn't conducive to buying new toys, or it could be protecting its manned aircraft turf, not willing to trade cockpits for new UAVs.  While the Navy, not owning a fleet of UAVs like the AF isn't likely risking manned cockpits by developing the ones it has.

While the UCAS vehicle may not make the transition to the fleet, testing of the aircraft continues.  The UCAS technology will be used by Northrop Grumman to develop a combat aircraft by the end of the decade.  I could see it used in an unmanned recovery tanker role as well, although with a somewhat larger vehicle or stores load.

While Lex didn't get the chance to see the UCAS at the boat, he probably wouldn't be cheering it, as he wrote back in October 2011:

"It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I have consistently believed that, despite all of the hoopla surrounding UAVs and the enthusiasm for ridding the skies of manned strike fighters, when troops are in contact and the enemy is danger close, you want the guy dropping the bomb sharing the same battlespace as the guys he’s protecting. On the same frequency, oriented to the same threats. Hearing their voices."

As for UAVs replacing pilots as a whole, "Gladiator ONE" doesn't see it:

"To think we're not going to show up . . . should a shooting war start is crazy," said Cdr. Brent "Stretch" Blackmer, VFA-106's commanding officer.  "There's going to be so much jamming, so much electronic attack, so many trons flying downrange"..."We're going to be way closer than anybody expected."

But I think he's making the Navy's point for them.  With a heavy Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) threat environment, risking a pilot isn't the way the Navy is planning its future.  Unmanned aircraft might be more susceptible to getting shot down due to lower speed or maneuverability, but it's just a big flying piece of metal, not human flesh that has mom and dad back home (and voting).

The purpose of Naval Air isn't to conduct Combat Air Patrol (CAP), it's not for hunting submarines, it isn't to jam, conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Recon., rescue downed pilots, etc.  Those are great missions, but they're all support missions.  Naval Aviation exists for one reason only- Strike Warfare- to put bombs on target.

If the Navy can figure out how to put smaller, less costly UAVs like the Reaper on our CVNs, if we can swarm an enemy with strike-capable aircraft which we can risk losing, either through attrition or kamikaze attacks, we can transform the carrier, the aircraft, and Naval history.  I fully agree with Lex in that nothing's better in the Close-Air-Support mission than a guy overhead that you know has got your back.  However, I expect technological advancements can improve the fidelity of that mission area as well.

The Hornet and JSF pilots probably don't need to worry about Naval Air changing anytime soon however. My boss humorously states that the reason the military exists is not just to fight and win our nations wars, but also to employ our nation's workforce- to build ships, aircraft, and employ civilians.

Why else would we buy 20+ C-27J Spartan aircraft that we don't need?  Who else would employ a civilian workforce that is nearly equal to the size of our uniformed force?  Why do we need two completely different LCS classes, except to keep a midwest shipyard open?  The instances abound where the DoD has been forced to develop, build, purchase, and maintain systems that weren't the best for our warfighters, but had strong political support.

If the Military Industrial Complex can figure out how to keep hugely expensive ship-classes afloat, keep the DoD drunk on massively expensive technological advancements, and transform warfare into battles fought by unmanned systems, all the while continuing to employ civilians and that industrial complex, then we very well may see the majority of our flight decks covered by UAVs.  Since all politics is local, and employing civilians means votes, I fully expect to see it in my lifetime.


  1. Well, Amazon's on board. ;-)

  2. Well, y'all bought the C-27 because the USAF didn't want to get the tires dirty on C-17s operating out of unimproved strips... :-P Seriously, before you go too far down that rathole, think about the Phoenix missile... PLENTY of standoff range, NEVER used in combat- Why? ROE, couldn't shoot at something that was not VID'ed... In the CAS environment there will always be a need for butts in seats. No field commander "I" know would trust anybody 8000 miles away to support his unit with danger close ordnance. Also jamming IS going to be an issue... as is spoofing!

  3. Drones will have a place in warfare. However, we are light years away from developing the sort of software needed to allow the drones to fly CAS or fly against manned aircraft. Light years. I completely agree with Old NFO.

    I don't think this is a subject we will ever agree on Tuna.

  4. There were a number of programs that Congress kept alive throughout the Cold War that the services wanted to kill: A10 was one program. I find it interesting that the USAF doesn't want the C-27s any more than it wanted the C-130Js. Drones are a hard sell because the scale of the buys doesn't permit the usual mandatory process of building components in all 50 states.
    I hate to contend but I'd say we have drones right now that could fly CAS and any kind of strike mission. It would take all of 5 minutes to select the gear that would tell the drone not to engage anything within 500 feet of a transmitter which would solve the danger close problem right away if one also doesn't care about colateral damage.

  5. It's not a matter of trust- it's a matter of available assets. If there's bad guys in contact with good guys, they may want the guy in a Hornet of JSF overhead, but you know they'll take a hellfire fired at the ragheads vice none at all. I'm also not talking completely autonomous UAVs- with a man in the loop, it's not far from what we have now. If the grunts can laze a spot on the bad guys, or if they can give a GPS coordinate, then the Reaper can deliver CAS. The Reaper is conducting CAS right now so you can't say that it's out of the realm of possibilities. As for buying equipment that has components built in all 50 states- that was a huge sell for the F-18A, "America's Fighter," but that isn't a requirement, just a nice to have that helped force the Navy's hand in getting it (which we didn't want in the first place). The current crop of UAVs- Global Hawk, Pred/Reaper are all built in California- no 50 state component issue there. They all became strong programs of record after we went into Afghanistan, and didn't have the normal insane procurement process however. And I agree that we don't have the software to have it fly against manned aircraft, but that was my point- it's a hunk of metal- we can risk it since we aren't risking Big-Time and the Wizzo. Strike escort only needs fighters if we don't want to risk the strike package, but it it's an all drone strike package, it's expendable. Swarms of UAVs don't need to be protected. Jamming affects every mission, manned or unmanned- we're not getting away from that problem, but we can avoid the risk by not using our flesh and blood pilots. It's a dangerous and dirty mission expressly made for our UAV forces.


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