An armed, pilotless aircraft designed to defend the United States may seem a 21st century description of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). However, the concept was actually introduced in a 1915 dissertation by inventor Nikola Tesla. And for most of the 20th century, the UAV remained a concept ahead of its time, with occasional spurts of funding that rarely survived more than one budget cycle. As with other new ideas – aircraft carriers, helicopters, stealth – UAVs also lacked broad support within the military.
That began to change with the first Gulf War in 1991, when a convergence of advancing technologies – smaller, faster computers, miniaturization, improved sensors, and remote flight control, etc. – made the, by current standards, primitive Pioneer UAV a standout success in surveillance, reconnaissance, and target designation.
That decade saw an explosion of demand for UAVs of every conceivable type by all four armed services. By the end of the 1990s, however, most of those had died, some due to tighter budgets, but many due to technology overreach. As in previous decades, many of the technologies needed to meet the ever-expanding requirements were not quite ready to leave the lab.
The post-9/11 military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, were tailor-made for UAVs, from tiny models individual warfighters could carry in their backpacks and hand-launch for a better look at the immediate area to larger, wide-area surveillance and communications relay to the weaponized Predator, the first UAV capable of locating and then attacking a target, all controlled by a pilot and sensor operator half a world away.
The first decade of the 21st century saw the development and first-ever combat deployment of a wide range of UAVs – hand- and catapult-launched, rocket-powered, rotary, and land- and ship-based.
The Air Force took primary command of the largest UAVs, initially basing three squadrons, a UAV battlelab, and a Center of Excellence at the newly upgraded Creech Air Force Base (AFB), Nev., a few miles from Las Vegas and Nellis AFB, then control center for Predator operations worldwide.
The Army and Marine Corps employed UAVs as extensions of their eyes, significantly raising warfighter situational awareness, just as significantly helping lower warfighter casualties.
While most Navy programs fell by the wayside, some continued to push the envelope, from the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program to the Northrop Grumman X-47B Pegasus, part of the Naval Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program to develop a ship-based unmanned strike capability.
U.S. Air Force
The Air Force, which initially showed little interest in UAVs, reversed itself in the past decade, becoming the most ardent proponent of large, multitask platforms. They are the only service to require UAV pilots to come from the ranks of experienced manned aircraft pilots – a requirement that caused considerable friction early on, until the Air Force began counting time piloting UAVs as part of a pilot’s overall flight hour requirement.
In June 2005, Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field, north of Las Vegas’ Nellis AFB, was renamed Creech AFB and became home to the bulk of the Air Force UAV inventory and development. Today, that includes one attack and five Predator reconnaissance squadrons, three maintenance, one operations, and one training squadron and the Joint UAS Center of Excellence.
In March 2010, the Air Force Academy recognized the new star status of unmanned aircraft by awarding four third-year and 20 second-year cadets the school’s first unmanned aerial systems-remotely piloted aircraft (UAS-RPA) wings and scarves.
“I’m thrilled to recognize the first class of cadets to graduate from Airmanship 200, Airmanship 201, and Airmanship 202 and become the catapult leaders for the UAS-RPA program at the Air Force Academy,” Brig. Gen. Dana H. Born, the academy’s dean of the faculty, said during the ceremony. “You are all pioneers.”
Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael C. Gould added it had been a difficult road to that point, at the academy and with the creation of Creech AFB. When the second Gulf War began, he added, with UAVs the first U.S. military elements into Afghanistan, “We were doing good to get two Predators in the air for 20 hours a day.
“At first, it was tough going – until we realized what a tremendous impact they could have on the application of air power. Now, we can’t build them fast enough to satisfy demand,” he said.
Today, the Air Force is looking at flying up to 65 combat air patrols, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, primarily to provide persistent reconnaissance and strike capability over Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), Headquarters USAF, summed up the USAF vision for the cadets: “I’d tell you that you’re the wave of the future, but you’re not; you’re the wave of the present. That’s the kind of impact you’re going to have.”
A few months later, the Air Force took yet another step toward making UAVs and their crews a prominent and permanent part of air warfare, decreeing that being a UAV pilot was now a full-fledged operational career. At the same time, the USAF began an undergraduate UAV pilot training program, with the same rigorous selection and qualification standards as any other pilot.
During a decade of war in Southwest Asia, the Air Force has significantly increased the types and numbers of UAVs it operates. The most notable and heavily employed has been the General Atomics Predator, a large ISR aircraft that was equipped with Hellfire missiles early in the war to become the first hunter-killer UAV.
It has been joined by the Reaper (sometimes referred to as the Predator B), a larger and faster aircraft and the first UAV designed from the beginning for strike missions. More recently, General Atomics has produced the Avenger (aka Predator C), an even more advanced hunter-killer.
The document “United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047” notes UAVs have “emerged as one of the most ‘in demand’ capabilities the USAF provides the Joint Force. The attributes of persistence, endurance, efficiency and connectivity are proven force multipliers across the spectrum of joint military operations. This Flight Plan’s vision is for a USAF where Unmanned Aerial Systems are considered viable alternatives to a range of traditionally manned missions.”
And while no one in the Air Force or any other service predicts UAVs will replace manned aircraft, the services are planning for a future of more limited manned missions, often as part of a mixed flight with UAVs and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs).
The Army also has become a major user of UAVs in combat, with an emphasis on smaller ISR systems that can be carried and deployed by all levels of field units, down to the individual soldier.
The Army UAS Roadmap 2010-2035 divides the Army vision into three time periods: Near-term (2010-2015), midterm (2016-2025), and far-term (2026-2035).
“The near-term focus addresses gaps in today’s UAS capabilities while emphasizing the rapid integration of existing technologies to meet current demands of the warfighter on the ground,” U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Commander Gen. Martin E. Dempsey wrote in the Roadmap foreword (Dempsey has since been nominated to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). “The mid-term focus is on integrating additional multipurpose UAS into all aspects of Army operations, ranging from ‘Network’ support to ‘Cargo’ capable. The more distant future is focused on increasing capability while reducing size, power, and weight requirements.”
Defined as “the eyes of the Army,” UAVs are seen as an essential part of the current and future ground force, dramatically increasing soldier protection through enhanced real-time situational awareness.
Since 2003, the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE) at Fort Rucker, Ala., has had authority over Army UAVs, with the Center’s UAS Training Battalion conducting all tactical UAS training, including the Shadow, Hunter, and Extended Range Multi-Purpose (ERMP) UAVs. The Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga., conducts all training on small UAS, such as the hand-launched Raven.
Between them, the two centers are scheduled to train more than 2,100 new UAS operators, maintainers, and leaders in FY 2012, eight times the number trained in FY 2003. Those specialists will be needed to meet the Army UAS Vision to employ unmanned aircraft “across all tactical echelons supporting Army and Joint operations, provide the warfighter a disproportionate advantage through near real-time situational awareness, multi-role capabilities on demand – including communications, reconnaissance, and armed response – and system employment from dynamic re-tasking through autonomous operations.”
The U.S. Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010-2035 is partly based on an expectation that “a near-peer symmetric military competitor to the United States will not exist for the next 25 years. However, U.S. forces will operate in a global environment of increasing instability and uncertainty. Most existing regional powers will grow, new ones will appear and transnational and non-state actors will increasingly influence world politics … The proliferation of weapons and technology will allow underdeveloped states and non-state actors to acquire significant equalizing capabilities. Areas and types of conflict become less predictable.”
As a result, the Army plans to broaden the types and capabilities of unmanned systems at all levels, providing increased flexibility to meet whatever challenges may arise. As Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman told the 2010 AUSA Army Aviation Symposium and Exposition, “We know the integration of unmanned aircraft systems with our maneuver forces into a single, cohesive combat capability is paramount.”
U.S. Marine Corps
As with the Army, the Marine Corps has incorporated small ISR UAVs into virtually every level of combat unit and operation. And their own recently released “Marine Unmanned Aircraft System Plan,” a section within the “FY 2011 Marine Aviation Plan” document, lays out a similar pattern of expansion, evolution, development, and implementation, making UAVs an integral part of the future Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) that is the centerpiece of the Corps’ expeditionary structure.
One area where the Corps has moved ahead is the ongoing competition to develop an unmanned cargo helicopter to provide far forward troops with essential heavy bulk supplies – especially water – thus freeing manned helicopters for other duties and reducing the number of ground convoys subject to ambush or improvised explosive devices.
According to the Corps’ UAS Vision Statement: “The UAS Family of Systems provides the MAGTF and its subordinate units dedicated operational and tactical, interoperable, integrated and tailored battlespace awareness and force application capabilities while enabling enhanced command, control, and communications throughout the range of military operations. USMC UAS perform key roles in all six functions of Marine Aviation: Aerial reconnaissance, electronic warfare, offensive air support, assault support, anti-air warfare, and control of aircraft and missiles.”
The Corps also is following the Air Force lead in making UAVs a primary career option as they expand across the range of military operations.
“Unmanned aircraft systems increase the lethality and effectiveness of our air-ground team by extending our influence over time and space on the battlefield. The persistence and reach of our current UAS are key characteristics that provide improved aerial reconnaissance and command and control capability exceeding that of manned aviation assets,” according to the UAS Plan. “The near future will see these characteristics expand to also include strike, electronic warfare and combat logistics.
“The MAGTF will directly benefit from improving aviation support as we find new ways to put our nation’s technologies into the hands of Marines. The rapid expansion of these technologies demands significant adaptation in organization, policy and doctrine within the Marine Corps and naval service. These include the addition of personnel and units, new primary MOS [military occupational specialty] fields and revision and creation of doctrinal publications and tactics, techniques and procedures [TTPs].”
While small UAVs will continue to be used extensively at battalion level and below, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadrons (VMUs) are tasked with operating the larger systems – an area where the Corps intends to expand beyond the current RQ-7B Shadow to a larger Marine Corps Tactical UAS with enhanced capabilities, including targeting, strike, intelligence collection, electronic warfare, data networking, and communications relay.
In addition, the three active and one Reserve VMU have been reorganized to provide three RQ-7 detachments to the fleet and, by 2012, will add an additional 81 Marines to support nine small UAS systems in each active-duty squadron.
While an integral part of PMA-263, the Navy and Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Air Systems Program Office at Patuxent River, Md., the Navy has lagged behind the other services in the acquisition and deployment of UAVs. They were part of the programs explosion of the 1990s, as all the services sought to capitalize on the success and visibility of the Pioneer UAV in Operation Desert Storm, but most of the Navy efforts were canceled due to budget, technology, or requirements issues.
With a lower profile role in the far inland war in Iraq and landlocked Afghanistan, the Navy was under less pressure than the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps to develop and field new unmanned systems. That did not, however, mean the Navy was no longer interested.
Although a Joint-UCAS effort begun at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency died when the Air Force dropped out in 2006, the Navy continued development of a Demonstrator (UCAS-D) using the X-47B Pegasus with which Northrop Grumman had planned to compete against Boeing on J-UCAS. The UCAS-D is scheduled to complete carrier demonstration objectives in 2013 with a series of catapult launches and arrested landings.
Program officials acknowledge the Navy has not yet defined requirements for an operational Naval system (N-UCAS), especially with regard to multi-ship operations, but say work has been under way to define system-level requirements and determine what modifications would be required for aircraft carrier operations.
If all goes well with UCAS-D, the next step for the Navy might be an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, on which other contractors have shown interest. Those include General Atomics, with its proposed Sea Avenger (a variant of the Predator C Avenger), and Boeing with its privately developed X-45 Phantom Ray, which completed its first flight in May 2011, about three months after the first Pegasus flight.
“Autonomous, fighter-sized unmanned aircraft are real,” Phantom Ray Program Manager Craig Brown declared. “The UAS bar has been raised. Now I’m eager to see how high that bar will go.”
Putting much of its time and funding into a carrier-based UAV while the other services work on deploying a wide range of systems is far from a low-profile effort. As with any aircraft intended for carrier operations, an N-UCAS or UCLASS would have to meet the difficult challenges of safe and reliable unmanned flight and landings at sea, made more difficult by the aircraft’s stealth requirement, which would further complicate landings for the UAV’s shipboard controllers. Those problems also apply to enabling aerial refueling for the UCAV.
An operational, deployed N-UCAS remains at the break point of the Army’s mid and far-term calendar, as the “Naval Aviation Vision” document currently calls for its introduction around 2025. However, that could move up by nearly a decade if the UCAS-D tests are especially successful and mission requirements grow.
That possibility was bolstered by last year’s Navy Request for Information for a UCLASS:
“The Navy is interested in information on carrier-based, low-observable Unmanned Air Systems concepts optimized for Irregular and Hybrid Warfare scenarios, capable of integrating with manned platforms as part of the Carrier Air Wing by the end of 2018 to support limited operations in contested scenarios. The UAS should enhance situational awareness and shorten the time it takes to find, fix, track, target, engage and assess time-sensitive targets. This RFI is intended to determine the existence of sources that can provide a limited inventory of systems capable of being operated by fleet Sailors and performing the above mentioned Navy UAS mission.”
The Navy also is moving forward with development of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4N Broad Area Maritime Surveillance high-altitude, high-endurance ISR UAV. BAMS is intended to complement the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime multimission aircraft (MMA), scheduled to replace the aging P-3 Orion.
While the P-8 deals with low-altitude reconnaissance, attack and anti-submarine warfare missions, BAMS, flying over weather and most air traffic at altitudes above 40,000 feet, would provide high-altitude, continuous open-ocean and littoral surveillance, signals intelligence and communications relay, with the ability to spot targets as small as an exposed submarine periscope.
Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs)
With the three-variant F-35 Joint Strike Fighter expected to be the only major U.S. manned fighter for some time to come, the idea of a UCAV has led to a number of programs, from the U.K.’s BAE Taranis and Europe’s Dassault-led nEUROn to the aforementioned X-45 Phantom Ray (a privately developed follow-on to Boeing’s earlier vehicle for the canceled J-UCAS program) and the Sea Avenger.
In some respects, the weaponized Predator “family” – from the original vehicle fitted with Hellfire missiles to the more advanced Reaper and Avenger – could be considered the first UCAVs. But while the Reaper and Avenger actually have little in common with the original Predator other than the name, they are not quite as sophisticated as what the military has envisioned for a full-bore UCAV.
One of the top shortfalls of the current platforms is a lack of true situational awareness, from a “sense-and-avoid” capability required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its sister agencies around the world for such aircraft to fly in civilian airspace to a related combat capability to operate with other UCAVs and manned aircraft and to detect and evade or destroy enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons.
The slight time delay in communications between the UCAV and a pilot on the ground or aboard ship hundreds or even thousands of miles away is one of the major problems facing the concept today. One solution may be giving control to manned aircraft flying in formation with or close by the UCAVs. The problem there is workload as a single pilot essentially would fly multiple aircraft remotely while ignoring the sensory inputs of the aircraft in which he or she is actually located.
But while UCAVs struggle with those and other technological obstacles, the Air Force continues to push advances in the UAVs under its control, including the Predator family and the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the largest UAV in service. The same is true for the Army and Marine Corps, which have concentrated on smaller UAVs for primarily ISR missions, although both also are looking at developing small strike platforms that could be considered robotic snipers – although always under human control.
Each of the four services has its own “tiers,” classifying UAVs by role or mission rather than specific platforms. As a result, the same aircraft may appear in different service tiers. In addition, the definition of a given tier for any service is subject to changes in technology and requirements.
The first major proponent of UAVs in combat was Israel, which considered them superior to the possible loss or capture of a pilot on an ISR mission. As a result, Israel was about a decade ahead of the rest of the world in developing and deploying UAVs, and is still a major global supplier or joint venture partner in unmanned aerial systems.
With more than 60 percent of total sales, however, the United States dominates the global UAS market, which the Teal Group’s 2010 UAV market study predicts will top $80 billion in worldwide demand through the end of this decade. Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, and AAI are the top U.S. producers, but more than four dozen other companies, universities, and military labs are producing or developing a wide spectrum of American UAVs – nearly 200 in all.
At the same time, more than 70 companies, universities, and military labs in about 43 other nations – from Abu Dhabi to the U.K. – have reported or are thought to be working on more than 450 UAVs across the spectrum of size and mission. However, nearly a quarter of those are from China, where verification of manufacturers and programs is virtually impossible. The same is true for several other nations and programs – such as Iran, but also, to a lesser extent, Russia and Pakistan.
Those numbers, for the United States and worldwide, also do not include black programs, such as the suspected U.S. Air Force UCAV. In addition, many of the public Chinese programs, in particular, are suspected smokescreens for legitimate black program developments.
Whatever the actual status, however, there can be no doubt virtually every nation with even minimal industrial and technological capability is trying to develop a domestic UAV capability – and every military on Earth is trying to buy the most advanced UAVs they can afford, regardless of source.
That demand continues to grow every year; the Teal Group forecasts annual expenditures will more than double, from about $5 billion this year to more than $11.5 billion by the end of the decade – an amazing turnaround for a technology that struggled for even minimal R&D funding less than a quarter-century ago.
Onward and Upward
Although remotely piloted vehicles have been in and out of service with the U.S. military since Vietnam, the modern UAV traces its heritage back only two decades. After a tumultuous 1990s, in which user demands often exceeded technological capabilities, the second Gulf War proved the value of UAVs.
Today all of the services have established major UAV components, integrated the systems into their TTPs and concepts of operation, and continue to present manufacturers with ever-higher bars for missions and capabilities. Each also has established the specific niches into which their UAV tiers fit and function, from the Air Force’s high-altitude/long-endurance (HALE) platforms to the enhanced situational awareness provided by Army and Marine Corps low-flying, short-range company and platoon-level UAVs to the Navy’s ship-based platforms, tailored to fleet protection and target acquisition.
There is little doubt the requirements set out for future generations of UAVs, from insect-sized spybots to aircraft capable of remaining airborne for years without landing, will continue to push the limits of technology. Part of the driver will be the increasing number and capability of UAVs operated by potential future adversaries, from technologically advanced national militaries to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.
“The number of countries involved in UAV research and acquisition programs will continue to grow throughout the decade and beyond,” Forecast International reported in its “Market for UAV Reconnaissance Systems 2010-2019.” “More and more nations are realizing that UAVs can save lives and make a military force more efficient by performing certain dull, dirty and dangerous missions.
“During this period, the UAV market will experience a slow but steady rise in value and in number of systems produced annually. Nevertheless, this market is in its infancy [and] will see massive expansion in procurement in the future, with purchases spread out among a very large number of nations.”
Unmanned vehicles already have expanded into space, with the still-secretive USAF X-37B, a reusable down-scaled space shuttle look-alike that flew one classified mission in low Earth orbit from April to December 2010. A second vehicle launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 5, 2011, for another classified mission of undisclosed duration.
The market, R&D funding, and pace for UAVs is expected to expand dramatically once the Department of Defense and the FAA – and their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere – agree on the technologies, flight controls, and other requirements that would enable unmanned aircraft to fly within the National Airspace System (NAS) occupied by passenger aircraft, from general aviation to commercial jetliners. Today, the Air Force cannot fly a Predator the 45 miles or so from Creech AFB to Nellis AFB; in the future, however, ISR platforms are expected to play a major role in patrolling national borders, locating and helping to fight forest fires, providing enhanced observation of remote infrastructure (such as the Alaskan oil pipeline) and, just as manned military aircraft do, flying between U.S. bases and from CONUS to missions anywhere on the planet.
Some of those already have been approved, on a limited basis, but only the USAF Global Hawk, which typically flies nearly three miles above the ceiling for commercial aircraft, has been granted an FAA airworthiness certificate to operate in the NAS on a permanent basis.
In terms of 21st century combat operations beyond Afghanistan, the USAF UAS Flight Plan offers a widely accepted perspective:
“As technologies advance, UAS automation and hypersonic flight will reshape the battlefield of tomorrow. One of the most important elements to consider with this battlefield is the potential for UAS to rapidly compress the ‘observe, orient, decide and act’ [OODA] loop. Future UAS able to perceive the situation and act independently with limited or little human input will greatly shorten decision time.
“This Perceive-Act line is critical to countering growing adversary UAS threats that seek automation capabilities. As autonomy and automation merge, UAS will be able to swarm – one pilot directing the actions of many multi-mission aircraft – creating a focused, relentless and scaled attack.”