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Why We Can Safely Transition to a Drone Air Force

July 26, 2009

After this week’s US Senate vote ending production of the F-22 Raptor, and its likely demise in the House as well, some may be worried it is the end of American aerial supremacy. Let me assure you it is not, and if you’ll examine the marvelous things our military is performing with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs-drones, robot planes), then you can be even more excited about the future. Here are some facts from CNN on “How robot drones revolutionized the face of warfare“:

There are now more than 7,000 UAVs ranging from the workhorse, the Predator, and its beefier, deadlier kin the Reaper, to army drones like the tiny hand-launched Raven and the larger Shadow. The drones are dramatically tilting the war in favor of the United States. Predators, for example, played a key role in killing al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2006. UAVs are credited with killing more than half al Qaeda’s top 20 leaders.

Now U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants more UAVs. Already he has said that the next generation of fighter planes — the F-35 that took decades to develop at a cost of more than half-a-billion dollars each — will be the last manned fighter aircraft. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, USAF, explains that the next phase will enable a single drone to provide as many as 60 simultaneous live video feeds directly to combat troops. Some new drones will be as small as flies, others walk — all appear destined to work with decreasing human input…

The spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar recently told me that it is not afraid of drones, that it doesn’t fear death. Deptula disagrees and quotes recently declassified comments between two Taliban leaders: “Tanks and armor are not a big deal, the planes are the killers.” He says that of more than 600 Hellfires fired by Predators, over 95 percent hit their targets. Those that failed did so generally through mechanical fault, loss of guidance or a target moving at the last instant, Deptula says.

 So you see, it isn’t any personal bias against the F-22 Raptor, since the F-35 Lightning is threatened as well (prediction:look for far fewer numbers purchased than the 2000 or so the USAF wants to buy!). It is just a recognition that warfare is changing and that combat drones can do many missions of the more costly and vulnerable manned planes, and perhaps some day replace it altogether.

Now if only the Navy with their handful of supercarriers with their short-legged fighters can start thinking of alternatives

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Defiant permalink
    July 27, 2009 12:46 pm

    The question is wheather the current wars are the future wars.
    “is not being used in the current wars” is no valid argument. SSBN or SSN or F-16 or (naval) Minesweepers weren’t used in current wars either.
    There will probably be a next war to fight, but if it’s a country like iran, all the predators will be useles until aerial superiority is established (by the cold war relics). As i said, it has it’s niche, but so have the cold war relics. Nearly everything is a compromise, as the jack of all traits doesn’t exist.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 27, 2009 10:12 am

    I’m surprised how easy you discount the new technology which has proven so effective as force multipliers in our current wars, while defending last century platforms which are shrinking in number and effectiveness while expanding in cost and size. The F-22 not being used at all in our current wars should be a hint to its obsolescence. Meanwhile the new UAVs, as well as the catamarans will continue to return relevance and numbers to our aging force structure, while also being bought at reasonable prices.

  3. Defiant permalink
    July 27, 2009 8:36 am

    There’s a little different, umanned aviation is not really something that hasn’t been there before, it’s only a change in the method of “steering”. It’s like the catamaran, it has its niche but can never replace a normal design.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 27, 2009 7:14 am

    Defiant, you may be right concerning the UCAVs but I also recall doubts from 100 years about those rickety, wire and canvas flying craft which were still in their infancy. The idea that some day they would drive the mighty dreadnoughts from the sea and pave the way for great armies to conquerer and reconquer Europe, was the stuff of science fiction back then. It is always the minor things, the Little Davids which change warfare, not so much those that are impressive in size and pleasing to the eye.

  5. Defiant permalink
    July 27, 2009 5:23 am

    If you want the same survivability, low rcs, agility and sensor power you’ll have to pay the same. with an unmanned system you have a little more freedom in design because you do not need a cockpit, but those savings will go straight to software developement.
    I don’t think there will be an ucav in the next 20 years which doesn’t need significant air superiority.
    It can maybe replace the long range bombers, but not the fighters.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    July 26, 2009 6:14 pm

    The tech is in its infancy no doubt, but if the UAV doesn’t replace $100-$300 million warplanes, then airpower is dead. I’d wait and see before we pronounce judgment.

  7. Defiant permalink
    July 26, 2009 5:28 pm

    All accomplishments listed were msiions with near zero air defense.
    In an ECM environment drones will have a hard time. Even ww2 planes are a problem for drones’ defense. And bringing them to a level of ability of a manned craft will cost the same amount of money, as you’ll need to implement the same stealth features and far better sensors than needed in a manned plane.
    Moreover those systems are heavily reliant on satellites and there is technology to take those down.
    Drones are fine for surveillance and should be left in a size where a sot down drone doesn’t cost several millions to replace, a predator can’ even start from a carrier and the x-4x (5 or 7) will cost alot more than a predator.

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