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UAVs are Kings of the Skies-Followup

August 15, 2009

This just in via Small Wars Journal, an article titled Drones are taking over the Air Force. Further proof of the transformation of airpower as we know it:

We can see how the Air Force’s drones will soon crowd out manned aircraft inside its aircraft hangars. By 2013, software and communications improvements will allow the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft pilots to simultaneously fly three drones at one time, four in an emergency. Another factor supporting the likely proliferation of drones such as the Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk is their low cost compared to new manned aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. According to the Government Accountability Office, $24.5 million will purchase a set of four MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drones plus a ground station and satellite relay. (See page 117 of this report) The latest guess of the price for a single F-35 fighter-bomber is $100 million. (See page 93.) This gap in cost led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to demand the cancellation of the manned F-22 Raptor program in order to fund the purchase of more drones for service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fueling this revolution are the PGMs, precision guided munitions, along with the advancements in sensor technology and GPS navigation. This allows smaller individual air weapons of the Information Age to do as much or more than the giant airwings of the old Industrial Age.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    March 16, 2010 12:37 pm


    There is no such thing as a robot plane!! The only place you will see robot fighter planes in our lifetime is Battlestar Galactica. A modern UAS is essentially the same as a manned aircraft — it simply transfers the workload off-board.

    It’s awfully neat to look at a Reaper on the tarmac and call it a “drone” or a “robot plane” but that overlooks all the necessary functions occuring off-board. Words are important which is why the services distinguish between a UAV (which is simply the vehicle) and a UAS (which includes the UAV, the operator, and the comms pipeline).

    So yes, we can probably build a UAV which can theoretically out-perform a manned fighter. However, if you step back and look at the whole system, there is still a requirement for an off-board pilot in the loop.

    Getting that pilot the sensor information with sufficient fidelity and speed so that he can outperform a manned adversary will requirement ENORMOUS AMOUNTS of bandwidth. This will be hard enough on the test range, and probably impossible in an operational setting or if the bad guys do anything to jam or deny it.

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 20, 2009 12:44 pm

    Des, you hit the nail on the head. Its not so much how much we spend but what we use this money for. I started having doubts when the so-called Reagan buildup only finished paying for weapons already on order. And the Navy only grew to about 600 ships by keeping older ones in service. Proof if this can be seen as we quickly shrunk down to 300 ships by the mid-1990s and continue to sink further.

    The politicians are then understandably reluctant to throw money at this all-consuming maw, as they get so little for their money these days. A few billion which might be a boon to a Third World Navy, wouldn’t even be noticed by the high-tech obsessed US Military. Note that most of the weapons fighting our current wars are ancient weapons because the ones we spend most of our money on are too costly to risk in combat! Ironic, and desperately wasteful.

  3. DesScorp permalink
    August 20, 2009 11:09 am


    Then clearly the defense budget was and is too low.

    Our defense budget is by far the biggest in the world, both in terms of dollar amounts and percent of GDP. No one even comes close. In fact, our budget is greater than the next half dozen nations combined. That includes the UK, Canada, France, Russia, and China. No one can claim that we’re not spending enough on defense. Considering our huge deficits, we’re probably spending too much on defense, just as we’re spending too much on everything else for our government. What we’re not doing is spending that money wisely. Does it really come as a huge shock that we’re not getting the quantity of weapons that we need when our fighters are around $200 million dollars apiece? When we’re building destroyers that the CBO says might cost $7 billion apiece? Not even we can afford such stupidity.

    There are way too many SU-30’s (and variations) flying around out there.

    Not really. The Russians and Chinese have a couple of hundred each of various Su-27 derivatives, and only the Chinese have newer ones. Russia’s birds are falling apart, and they’ve only built 12 of the Su-35’s for themselves. Why? They can’t afford any more. The Chinese are finished license-building their derivatives, and are now throwing most of their fighter resources into smaller, more nimble fighters developed indigeousnessly. The Great Flanker Threat is vastly overstated. This is why the Navy wasn’t too concerned about retiring their Tomcats. The world’s air forces are all moving to smaller, F-16 wannabees. All European and Asian air forces are buying smaller fighters now, with the exception of Singapore, which bought some F-15’s. China licensed built some Su’s, but that run is finished, and in relatively small numbers. India has bought all of the Su’s they’re going to buy. Taiwan, India, China, Pakistan, and Japan are all built or bought smaller agile fighters in the Viper/Hornet mold. Outside of Russia, the closest thing to a “big fighter” being built is the Eurofighter, and it’s about the size of a Super Hornet, which would be classed as a medium sized fighter, at best. With the close of the F-22 line, and ultra-slow Su-35 line, the small fighter owns the production lines now.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 19, 2009 7:30 am

    I am satisfied with a silver bullet of the F-22s, lacking any peer threat as we are, and I don’t think we will purchase the F-35 Lightning in anywhere near the numbers the services want. I would like to see legacy fighters replaced with like planes and I would be for a bulk purchase of the Super Hornet if necessary.

    I do see we disagree across the board on the future of weapons procurement. I think the new sensors, missiles, smart bombs, and drones on land and sea, placed on cheap common vehicles, are making large high tech platforms redundant, even as high cost and complication make the latter impossible to order in any numbers. Hence the problem with the Raptor. I don’t think the problem is with the size of the budget but with what we actually buy with it.

    Manned air is still very important and will be with us for some time. I don’t think they are as essential as 20 years ago, and I am certain we don’t need to break our budget on a niche weapon while aged planes do all the work, as if disaster is certain if we don’t have superfighters. The disaster is not replacing more useful weapons for the wars we fight today, rather than planning for some future obscure war, which is really less about tomorrow’s strategy so much as it is about past wars.

  5. render64 permalink
    August 19, 2009 6:32 am

    Then clearly the defense budget was and is too low. I’m not anti-UAV Mike, never said I was.

    I’m from a far different school of procurement thought entirely. I think we need at least 500 F-22’s and a minimum of 1,000-1,500 F-35’s. I think we need to replace the Hornets with SuperBugs on a one for one basis, re-open the A-10 line, retire the Harriers, maintain a minimum of twelve CBG’s at all times, and build tens of thousands of gnat like Predator/Reapers, all while continuing to invest greatly in the future of UAV’s.

    I think we need a one for one replacement program for the C-5’s, the C-130’s and a boatload of new tankers as well. I’d like to see a B-1C variant to replace the -52’s (they are a good bit older then the KC-135’s after all) on a one for one basis for that matter.

    Not real thrilled with the Osprey or the LCS for that matter. I keep a Swiss Army knife in my tool box, but it doesn’t get used as much as the other tools. I do think we need twenty or so DDG-1000’s, but not as a replacement for the DDG-51 line, which should continue on a one for one replacement basis.

    The -14, -15, and -16 were each in service for quite some time before they saw (or were risked in) actual combat, at least by US forces.

    If the -18, -22, and -35 are going to be the last of their type, doesn’t it make sense in a number of different ways, too build as many as we can?

    You can’t tell me those aircraft mentioned in that article aren’t currently needed any more then either one of us can prove the -22’s and -35’s will or will not be needed over the next two decades as the -15’s, -16’s, and -18’s are retired.

    There are way too many SU-30’s (and variations) flying around out there.


  6. elgatoso permalink
    August 18, 2009 11:14 pm

    We lost 2 Osprey and the program was almost canceled.If we loose one third of all deployed manned aircraft ,the program is doomed .Another point to the potential of UAS.

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 18, 2009 10:19 am

    Here is more sad proof of what happens when you spend the bulk of your budget on a few stealthy Top Gun fighters in an age of many threats:

    Ancient Jet Keeps the U.S. Air War Flying

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 18, 2009 7:38 am

    ““More than one third of all deployed Predator spy planes have crashed.”

    I have heard this before and it doesn’t discourage me about their potential one bit. All new technology has teething trouble, and we can afford to lose a few UAVs far more than a super-stealth fighter, which the USAF dare not even risk in combat. Such losses are a sign of their usefulness as much as their immaturity. Just look at the horrible losses if helicopters in all our ongoing wars, 5000 in Vietnam alone about half to accidents! And yet each new conflict they are more essential than ever.

    Another revealing point about the UAV crashes, not a single US pilot was a casualty. Thats real progress.

  9. August 18, 2009 5:34 am

    The Man in the Loop.

    The -22 and the -35 are not “legacy” aircraft, yet.

    At $7 to $40 million apiece they aren’t all that expendable.

    “More than one third of all deployed Predator spy planes have crashed. 55 were lost because of “equipment failure, operator errors or weather”. Four of them were shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq; 11 were lost in combat situations, such as “running out of fuel while protecting troops under fire.”


    I think the odds are still very good (or bad as the case may be) that sooner or later we’re probably going to have to deal with somebody who can and will contest the airspace over a US ground operation (see the Balkans). None of the currently existing, or publicly revealed UAV’s show any great ability to survive in a contested airspace, even A-10’s are at risk in such.

    We appearing to be intentionally re-creating the circumstances that led to the last time US groud troops were attacked by enemy air power.


  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 16, 2009 6:52 pm

    “Fire scout … cannot use torpedos or a dipping sonar.”

    Yet. Remember this is a First Generation VTOL UAV. Look how far the Predator has come in a decade. From spy plane, to a precision bomber in Iraq, now a strategic bomber over Pakistan. I’d just like to see Fire Scout put to work and given a chance. As Master Gunner says, enough with the trials!

  11. Defiant permalink
    August 16, 2009 4:02 pm

    Fire scout can only really replace the second helicopter on a ship, it cannot use torpedos or a dipping sonar.

    @mike , i agree that the tomahawk is good if you want to take out one small target as soon as possible, in every other situation jdams are more cost effective.

  12. leesea permalink
    August 16, 2009 2:32 pm

    From some knowledgeable vets I correspond with:
    Master Gunner said:
    “I believe that the frigate trials of Fire Scout aboard USS McInerney (FFG- 8) are about concluded or have concluded and they were a success. Now that trials are done we should be getting the Fire Scout out to the various fleet ships ASAP. Fire Scout IS a great force multiplier. It needs to be deployed now and not studied to death for various reasons that have nothing to do with its capabilities or use.”
    Wes the Seawolf said:
    you are “Dead On Target” concerning Controllers of UAV’s. Prime example I can sight (as a former Air Traffic Control Supervisor ) our Navy GCA (Ground Control Approach Operators) are ENLISTED Techs who do a magnificent job in all-weather conditions ). And we have simply trusted them with handling Million dollar aircraft to bring them home safely. It’s a high-tech game board, with very big & expensive real airplanes! Cost benefit analysis would absolutely support an Enlisted Operator program.

    And when it comes to attacking a Targeting or Weapons Relese Authorit, Rules of Engagement issued & monitored by an Intel Officer type & or a Tactical Operations Center would cover the lethal force expenditure handily.

  13. Joe permalink
    August 16, 2009 1:34 pm

    UAVs are here and will be a big part of the future. Our ‘frenemies’ around the world are planning to increase their investment in the technology….

    China is planning to greatly expand its push for UAV technology in the near future.

    And Russia is very interested in Israeli UAV technology. Why? Because Russia was impressed by the performance of Elbit Systems’ Hermes-450 UAS operated by Georgia during last year’s war.

    …so in a “follow the money” aspect, you’d have to say that smart money is being spent to exploit the attributes UAVs have to offer. However…

    UAVs have their weaknesses. They are not perfect. As the USAF notes, among other things in this report, manned fighters aren’t going away anytime soon. Some might accuse the USAF of being biased, but OTOH something so important as our defense and that of our allies demands we proceed cautiously (but with purpose) on something like UAV technology. IOW, Don’t turn your nose up at their potential but throw the baby out with the bathwater, either.

  14. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 16, 2009 11:52 am

    As it should be elgatoso. I just hope the low tech outnumbers the high, just individual platforms are so much more capable these days. A top heavy force is a mistake the Navy has made in the past few decades (while lacking a near-peer competitor) and naturally suffers from shrinking assets alongside mounting missions.

  15. elgatoso permalink
    August 16, 2009 11:36 am

    I read in internet(I can’t find the site) that in a foreseeable future are going to be 3 different types of platforms in the AF.A high tech(f-35,F22, )platform ‘just in case’ ,a very low tech platform(super tucano ,at-6)for COIN,and unmanned.

  16. August 16, 2009 10:17 am

    solomon and others

    Light aircraft and reconnaissance helicopters have always had a place but they cannot loiter for around 20 hours – a key advantage of UAVs.

    The other advantage of UAVs not yet mentioned in this post or comments is their ability to operate in places too dangerous to risk pilots.

    – This might be over the Afghan battlefield, wear Stinger type missiles can shoot down slow and low moving aircraft. A shot down UAV does not provide a hostage for the Taliban to endlessly display and pressure the US Government.

    – stealthy UAVs (for attack or reconnaissance) in or on the borders of high threat environments, such as Russia and China, are also opportunities. Stealthy developments of Global Hawk will not suffer the shoot down with deaths or hostages fate (from B-29 to P-3s) that have long and usually quietly been occuring. More publicly .

    The unspoken threat of UAVs to pilot intakes in the USAF and USN with negative impacts on their airline prospects also needs to be addressed. Its a sleeper that appears to spawn many unrelated reasons not to have UAVs.


  17. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 16, 2009 8:49 am

    “Please tell me how this doesn’t affect UAV.”

    The UAVs are smaller, naturally stealthy, and expendable. All weapons are vulnerable to some form of countermeasures, but we need something besides a few gold-plated launchers which we can’t afford to lose.

    “Missiles don’t get smarter – they get new sensors/datalinks/software = more expensive;”

    I disagree. The Tactical Tomahawk comes in at about half the price of older weapons used in Desert Storm.
    Even so, the enhanced accuracy makes up for a lot. You fire one missile from the sea, from one destroyer or submarine, to take out one target, where pre Desert Storm you had to send an entire battlegroup, with up to a dozen vessels in support, and risk its entire airwing. To me this is a remarkable cost-efficiency that can’t be ignored.

  18. Defiant permalink
    August 16, 2009 7:32 am

    Mike Burleson said: “If it wasn’t for the standoff missiles keeping them out of harms way, the traditional planes would have been dead long ago.”
    Please tell me how this doesn’t affect UAV.
    Mike Burleson said: “But the missiles are getting smarter, no longer bound by their more costly and too hard to build manned motherships”
    Please explain this. Missiles don’t get smarter – they get new sensors/datalinks/software = more expensive; thats simply shifting the cost to the missiles which get destroyed in the mission. The usual way to go is to make the ammunition as cheap as possible (in relation to the mission) and having most of the electronic stuff on the wepon system carrier (= the plane). Now again, your reusable cruise missile is only reusable if it’s not shot down, hence increasing survivability is a priority, which is in the end the same as the normal jets without a cockpit.
    You never addressed problems like comm bandwidth either.
    the navy ucas btw is scheduled for introduction in 2020, with a beginning of developement in 2003 – more than 15 years of developement for a carrier based ucas, how ill these things be any cheaper than manned aircraft?

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 16, 2009 6:51 am

    Des, I still insist the UAVs are the antidote to manned fighters which are growing heavier, more expensive, and fewer. If it wasn’t for the standoff missiles keeping them out of harms way, the traditional planes would have been dead long ago. But the missiles are getting smarter, no longer bound by their more costly and too hard to build manned motherships. Now we have reusable cruise missiles in the form of UAVs and it is just a matter of time.

    Manned fighters, still useful, but increasingly will be expensive redundancy.

  20. just a thought permalink
    August 16, 2009 5:19 am

    I wonder how a swarm of UAVs would do against one of these

  21. DesScorp permalink
    August 15, 2009 8:33 pm

    You’re vastly overestimating the capability of UAV’s. We’re a long, long, long way off from “the end of manned skies”. In particular, you have farrrr too much faith in software as a replacement for men. Software is nothing but trouble, and it’s only going to get worse as it gets more complex. And I say this as a man that works in aviation and IT. I’ve coded (mainly in C) and it’s an inherently messy business with the best of people and circumstances… something I don’t think the Pentagon has right now (see the software snafus on both the F-22 and F-35 programs). Software is what will turn your “cheap” UAV’s into expensive aircraft. I’m not the only one that has this opinion on the over-reliance of software. Men like Bill Joy (a co-founder of Sun Microsystems) have also warned that modern software is much more complex, expensive, and buggy than we realize.

  22. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 15, 2009 7:59 pm

    Mark, replacing legacy aircraft won’t be cheap, so I think this is where the drones stand out. Also, recall that the first combat planes were spotter aircraft with some improvised gun mounts and bomb racks. There is little difference today with UAVs.

    Michael M- I think I agree with your statement, except for more F-22s. The longer it takes to field significant numbers of the F-35, the more the drones can play catch-up and displace it in many roles. I predict drastically fewer orders for this “last manned fighter”, maybe even as few as 500 for the USAF. The Navy should keep the adequate Super Hornet, and concentrate all its resources on drones.

  23. michael Mac permalink
    August 15, 2009 7:39 pm

    drones are more likely to replace F-35 than F-22. Strike missions would seem to be their niche- especially SEAD. Perhaps we should limit F-35 production & get more F-22s.

  24. Mark permalink
    August 15, 2009 4:09 pm

    The UAVs in service are mainly ISR drones that have added a few bombs. I know USAF and USN both are working on UAV stealth bombers with a greater payload. But what about a cheap unmanned bomb truck? I guess legacy fighters can function as cheap bomb trucks, so maybe there’s no pressing need for a cheap unmanned bomb truck.

    I’m excited about cargo UAVs and automated logistics, in general. The defense budget is getting eaten up by personnel costs. R&D and procurement budgets are gonna be hit hard under Obama. USAF and USN have clear paths going forward of increasing automation and lower personnel costs. But the Army still is very manpower intensive. We need to figure out ways to automate more of the support functions and increase productivity. Logistics seems like a prime target.

  25. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 15, 2009 3:35 pm

    Solomon I disagree about the diminishing returns on UAVs and see light aircraft not as an alternative for but a partner with robot planes. We can see this in the new COIN air force being produced to operate alongside Reapers and Predators already in service.

    See you need balance of capabilities and one type of plane, ship or Vehicle can’t do it all. An all-stealth fighter force takes away from so many other capabilities, mainly in the low spectrum.

    So with the “cheap but nasty” little planes and UAVs you can have variety, which you won’t see if the services get all the hot superfighters they want.

  26. solomon permalink
    August 15, 2009 1:30 pm

    drones are soon going to approach the point of diminishing returns. bandwidth problems alone will force a return to manned aircraft but in the framework that you desire. simpler. beechcraft commuter planes are being packed with sensors and are performing the same missions that the more complex reaper are doing. simply add hellfires to the mix and turbo prop airplanes with the required sensors are a cheaper alternative. i think what you’re really seeing is a mismatch in doctrine. the USAF did not have a force established to fight a COIN type war. that’s why calls for the OV-10 to come back or the AT-6 Texan to be armed are gaining traction.

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