Defense Media Network

NAVAIR Unmanned Aircraft Programs

“Operationalizing” America’s new security strategy



“Experience suggests that the right technology, used intelligently, makes sheer numbers irrelevant. The tipping point was the Gulf War in 1991. When the war was over, the United States and its coalition partners had lost just 240 people. Iraq suffered about 10,000 battle deaths, although no one will ever really be sure. The difference was that the Americans could see at night, drive through the featureless desert without getting lost, and put a single smart bomb on target with a 90 percent probability.” – Bruce Berkowitz, The New Face of War

The U.S. military has long depended on technology to provide it with “overmatch” against potential foes.  One of the most rapidly growing areas of innovative military technology adoption involves unmanned aerial systems (UAS). In the past decade, the military’s use of UAS has increased from only a handful to more than 5,000. The exploding use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs (as well as their surface, subsurface and ground counterparts), is already creating strategic, operational, and tactical possibilities that did not exist a decade ago. We are on the verge of a military revolution.

The earliest recorded use of a UAV for warfighting occurred on Aug. 22, 1849, when the Austrians attacked the Italian city of Venice with unmanned balloons loaded with explosives. The first pilotless aircraft were built shortly after World War I. In the United States, the Army led the way, commissioning a project to build an aerial torpedo, resulting in the Kettering Bug, which was developed for wartime use, but which was not deployed in time to be used in World War I. Development of, primarily, UAS, continued through World War II and into the second half of the last century.

The expanding use of unmanned systems today – and in particular armed UAS – is changing the face of modern warfare in profound and sometimes unforeseen ways. Indeed, the possibilities engendered by these unmanned systems is altering the very process of decision-making in combat operations. It is not a stretch to say that the rise in drone warfare is changing the way we conceive of and define “war” itself. These systems have been used extensively in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will continue to be even more relevant as the United States’ strategic focus shifts toward an era of high-end warfare.


The MQ-4C Triton is designed to work in concert with the manned P-8A Poseidon aircraft.
U.S. Navy photo

These unmanned systems are of enormous value today and are evolving to deliver even better capabilities tomorrow, but it is their promise for the more distant future that causes the most excitement. That said, what this promise involves is opaque to most people because few understand the scope of the UAS in use by the U.S. military today. Much of that cutting-edge UAS work is conceived, engineered, tested, developed, and fielded by the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland.


A National Mandate

One need only take a cursory look at the highest level guidance issued by the Department of Defense – whether it is the National Defense Strategy, the National Military Strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, or others – to understand how important unmanned systems are to the military’s efforts to safeguard America’s security and prosperity today and especially tomorrow.

There is little question that these unmanned systems will be counted on to play a vastly more central role for the U.S. military in the near future as well as long term. Indeed, the widely heralded “Third Offset Strategy” and “Defense Innovation Initiative” point to unmanned systems as one of the pillars of America’s future defense efforts – initiatives that are enshrined in the Long Range Research and Development Plan. This plan looks to take the most promising unmanned systems from concept to capability as rapidly as possible.


Organizing the Department of Defense’s Unmanned Systems Efforts

Since unmanned systems cross so many disciplines and touch virtually all aspects of what the Department of Defense (DOD) does, in 2000, DOD created its first Unmanned Systems Roadmap. As this book goes to press, the latest instantiation of this publication, Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: 2016-2041, is being issued. This comprehensive document is both broad in scope – covering all U.S. military unmanned systems fielded or in development – as well as rich in detail, showing technical development paths for these systems.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...