A Brief Look At The United States UAV-RPA Strategic Vision

Raul Colon
PO Box 29754
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico 00929

I. Historical References

During the past fifty years, the United States Armed Forces have tested and deployed a number of Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPA) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) platforms with varying degrees of success. The first major developmental UAV programme by the US Air Force was the Lightning Bug System. The system was developed for the Air Force to be operated as a target drone platform. It eventually found its way to the skies over Vietnam as a reconnaissance platform. The Bug flew almost 3,500 mission sorties during that conflict. In the late 1960s and early 70s, the Air Force commenced and terminated several other UAV and RPA programmes. Such programmes suffered from a lack of strategic vision, focus on what the UAV could accomplish and what it was incapable of doing at the time, produced a strategic stalemate.

Major cost overruns also caused promising programmes, such as the D21 Tagboard-Senior Bowl Program and Compass Arrow, to be curtailed prematurely. Other factors contributed to the near termination of all of the United States UAV programmes during the 1970s. The emerging of a more reliable information-gathering satellite system halted the momentum gained during the Lighting Bug program. During that decade, a massive US foreign policy shift in its relation toward China and a new détente policy against the Soviet Union, made the UAV planned main mission, deep incursion into China and the USSR with the aim of gathering as much information as possible, a non starter for the time’s political leaders.

With the end of the Vietnam War, the US armed forces curtailed to the minimum, the use of discretionary funds available for the development of UAV and RPA platforms. During the late 70s and early 80s, the US did not made any major effort towards the design and development of a new series UAV or RPA systems. But the situation dramatically changed when the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) deployed a series of small, unmanned platforms in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon during 1982. In what is still called one of the most carefully planned and executed air plans ever, the IDF utilized the UAV in two different profiles. The first mission assigned the UAV was the gathering of intelligence regarding the Syrians troop positions in the Valley, the second, and the most vital to the IDF, was to use the UAV to activate Syrian’s air defence systems along the Valley, thus allowing Israeli aircraft to pin them down and destroy them in a quick and massive strike. The US military was closely monitoring the situation in the Bekaa Valley.

Immediately after the affair ended, US military planners promptly realized the vast and untapped potential of the UAV and RPA systems. Since the US did not posses at the time any significant UAV platforms in its arsenal, systems such as the successfully Israeli’s Pioneer System; they began the process of buying Pioneers from Israel, while at the same time, investing vast amount of human and financial resources on their own UAV programs. The first of the US next generation UAV was the RQ-1 Predator System A. The System A was a jointly developed platform, a consortium, compromising the Navy and the Army. It was designed to be operated by all branches of the military. But 1996, the Air Force was assigned full operational control over the complete programme.

The System A made its first operational deployment during the Balkans Crisis in 1996 as an advance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. Since then, every US armed forces deployment have utilized the Predator System A’s unique characteristics. Between 1996 and the end of 2004, the Predator platform had logged almost 100,000 flight hours, sixty eight percent of them on operational profiles.

The next Predator variant to become operational was the MQ-1 System. The MQ-1 is basically a System A platform armed with the AGM-114 “Hellfire” missile for operational threat protection and target engagement. Since its inception into the force, the MQ-1 had been one of the US military most requested platforms. It had performed in all US combat theatres. Next step of the US UAV programme was the development of the RQ-4 Global Hawk System. The RQ-1 made its maiden flight in 1998 and since then had logged well over 7,000 flight hours. Most of them taking place on the heavily saturated theatres of Afghanistan and Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a tailor-made theatre for the RQ-4 mission profile. It gave the UAV the opportunity to showcase its ISR assets on a highly fluid environment. The RQ-4 ISR feedback was such that although they flew only five percent of all the operational missions, they accounted for fifty five percent of the target designated pins against the Iraqi air defence network. Other small UAV systems such as the Pointer, Raven and the Force Protection Aerial Surveillance System (FPASS) were deployed in both Afghanistan and later, Iraq. These man-portable, short range platforms were employed mostly to provide the US forces with additional base protection force, reconnaissance and targeting duties.

From Fiscal 1954 to 1999, the US Armed Forces spent the sum of nearly $ 21 billion on the research and development of UAV and RPA platforms, the vast majority of the assigned funds went to the Air Force. Total spending during the period was less than $ 500 million a year. In the decade of the 1990s, the US Department of Defence spent well over $ 3 billion of UAV and RPA development, production and operational profiles. The US is expected to triple that amount before this decade is out. The Air Force is investing massive amount of financial resources upgrading the current UAV and RPA system fleet as well as on the design, development and production of the MQ-9 System and a near-space platforms, which, along with the development of the next generation of small UAV platforms; will augment the Air Force’s larger RPA programmes.

Because of the massive infusion of funds and personnel into the UAV and RPA programs, and the need to centralize the operations of this new force spectrum, a Joint UAV Centre of Excellence (JCOE) was established by the Joint Requirement Oversight Council in July 2005. Based at Creech air Force Base, Indiana Springs, Nevada; the Centre's primary mission is to optimize the UAV and RPA requirements to meet current and future mission requirements. The Air Force is also expanding its research into Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) and it’s expected to have an operational system by the end of the decade. Others branches had follow the Air Force’s lead. Currently, the US Special Operations Command had increased its funding for UAV systems. The Navy is going ahead with plans to accelerate the development of fixed and rotary winged UAV and RPA for carrier group defence, ISR and later, submarine detection and targeting. The Army and the Marine Corp are also investing on UAV design and development. Overseas, the US had fielded MQ-1 platforms in Italy and Great Britain; and is assisting Germany with the development of the Euro-Haw System. At the same time, the Air Force is exploring the possibility of fielding UAV and RPA systems to patrol the vast Pacific Ocean operational theatre.

In addition to military applications for the UAV and RPA, there are several federal agencies looking into the possibility of employing UAV systems. The Home Land Security Agency (HLS) will field a full operation UAV squadron by decade’s end. The HLS is planning to use UAV platforms to patrol common borders, target human and drug smugglers, detect chemical, biological, and radiological components entering the US. NASA also plans to utilize the UAV for weather reconnaissance, environmental data collection and other scientific research purposes. The uses for these platforms are as limited as the technology employed permitted today.

II. Today’s UAV and RPA Platforms

Three main factors had combine to make the UAV systems more attractive to today’s armed forces.

(1) Technology: Major leaps in technology had made the implementation of a vast array of sensor systems into an unmanned aircraft more feasible today. Sensors and weapons payloads storage on UAV are been miniaturized for storage efficiency. Smaller and more capable systems provide the UAV and RPA greater capability per unit weight. New data link networks are providing high bandwidth connectivity for UAV command and control, payload release and data transfer. Increments on microchip capabilities, added with an improved software, internal navigation systems and global positioning systems integrations; enables the UAV to acquire an almost autonomous flight control system. The use of new composite materials on the UAV airframe had incorporated stealthy features to the vehicle. Advances in air propulsion had resulted on increase fuel efficiency, thus extending the UAV level of operational endurance.

(2) Current Global Events. In the diverse and fluid environment that composes the world today, the UAV provides the armed forces with a flexible, highly deployable platform. UAV and RPA also can operate on environments deemed too difficult for humans to conduct operations. Such as a chemical, biological, even nuclear events. Long flight endurance provide continues support for updated ISR and targeting data collection.

(3) The Unique Attributes. The special characteristics that the UAV and RPA offered field commanders more flexibility when planning a mission package. The endurance factor alone had reduced the need for a higher human sortie level. Fewer sorties also means that fewer risk are taking by manned aircraft and its pilots over hostile environments. The ability to operate in remote locations around the globe from ground stations located in the US, permit the UAV to be mission-ready without the need of a forward deployment, thus reducing forward deployment footprints, support, force protection and personnel level.

But despite all of its advances during the last two decades, the Air Force UAV and RPA programmes are still in its infancy. The arming of the RQ-1 system with Hellfire missile is just but the first step on the evolution of these systems from a pure ISR profiles to an engagement operational platform. It is like the arming of biplanes with machines guns during the early days of aviation. The US Defence Department does not plan for a specific platform; it plans on capabilities and effects. The unmanned platform’s characteristics are neither, capability or an effect. By utilizing capability/bases mission planning for effect/bases operational profiles, the US can precisely determinate which specific mission packages are more appropriated for the UAV mission profile.

III. Advantages

The UAV and RPA system offer field commander with an array of special attributes. Traits that made these systems more attractive to implement on a fluid, deployable environment situation.

(1) Endurance. UAV platforms, from its conception, are design to flight for extensive periods of time, needing breaks only for refueling and maintenance. Numerous technological factors had provided the UAV with this characteristic. The development of more fuel-efficient power plants, streamline airframes, and the utilization of the space reserved for the crew and its support system to house aviation fuel, had provided the UAV with its extended loiter trait. The future incorporation of in-flight aerial refuelling, couple with advances in next-generation power sources; will permit the platform to increase even more its endurance capability. This new level of endurance will have a profound effect on how the Air Force plans and conducts military operations around the world. In the future, UAV and RPA platforms will work closely with manned systems and space-based assets to provide the US military with continuous coverage of the enemy’s activities. This will translate into a complete dominance over a defined area of operations, allowing the US to in fact, shape and affect the enemy’s actions. The absence of a crew mitigates the human limitation associated with flight operations: fatigue.

(2) Technology. Like its manned counterparts, future UAV and RPA platforms will incorporate stealth-like features and an array of advance defensive measures in order to penetrate heavily saturated air defence environments. Unmanned systems are coming into an age of unprecedented advances in data network transfer. The Net-centric operation, which is design to take full advantage of the UAV and RPA data transfer technology, will prove crucial command and control instructions to the next generation of platforms. The full integration of command protocols with compatible platform-based software will enable future unmanned system to utilize a semi-autonomous protocol, thus streamlining the command and control procedure.

(3) Integration. For the UAV to realize their enormous potential, they need to be fully incorporated into the global defence network. The capability of the unmanned platforms, as well as the manned systems, increase when they join common operational packages. Network integration and intelligence sharing protocols would be de backbone of the Air Force’s UAV fleets in the years to come. As these platforms are integrated into the overall force structure, they will become a multiply factor. Remote control operators will be able to coordinate air-to-ground, air-to-surface, and in the future, air-to-air ordinance employment.

IV. Limitations

As with all airborne operational systems, Unmanned Air Vehicles had similar limitations as its manned counterparts. One of the main concerns is the weight factor. Payload and fuel capacity are inversely related. As new materials and constructions techniques come into play, they will help decrease the overall weigh of the UAV, thus enable ling the platform to maximize its range and payload capacity. Advances in propulsion systems have the potential to provide the UAV with greater thrust and fuel efficiency. However, this potential exist only to the extent that it is not otherwise offset by the ever expanding mission profile that could drive total weight back to the early levels.

Like its manned counterparts, unmanned aircraft are susceptible to extreme weather conditions as well as being vulnerable to kinetic and no-kinetic weapon treats. This is relatively true about the slow moving, low-altitude, bulgier early generation UAV platforms that were not equipped with next generation survivability systems and/or day and night operation capability in hostile environment. Add to the equation the range limitations of most of the non-kinetic weapon, both manned and unmanned air systems employing these systems must engage the enemy at low altitude, increasing their vulnerability. Like manned systems, the UAV can mitigate this vulnerability through low observable integrated aircraft system design, dynamic mission planning, air-to-air weapon systems for self-defence, electronic countermeasures and other active defence systems such as chaff flares and the ability to call for support from other aircraft, both manned and unmanned ones.

UAV can also be made more “intelligent” and unpredictable in its performance much like the manned systems using advance computer processor and incoming new mission management software that would present a more challenging target for hostile adversaries. Coming on-line now are new airframe designs that would incorporate an investment in airworthiness and survivability consistent with the mission profile. Like manned aircraft, the current UAV platforms systems suffer from shortcomings in reliability. However, as the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk system programs transition moved from Advance Concept Technology Demonstration vehicles to full production and operation platforms, field mishaps rates declined in late 2004. From 1999 to mid 2004 the average accident rate for both the Predator and Global Hawk systems was approximately 24 mishaps per 100,000 flying hours. This treat had gone downward ever since then. As improve operator display capabilities, a more advance flight control, including the most needed automatic take-off and landing control for the MQ-9 platform; as well as increase training come on-line, this downward trend will likely be sustained for the foreseeable future.

The reliability aspect of the project is directly tied up to cost. Repairing and refurbishing UAV platforms quickly are an expensive proposition. As redundant subsystems are incorporated in the UAV to prevent accidents, reliability will increase. For example, most current UAV and RPA platforms are single-engine systems. Twin-engine systems may prove to be more reliable in the battlefield. But the need for reliability must be balanced against the added cost to the overall program, weight and complexity. At the same time, improve crew training, increase operational experience and advances in flight control software are resulting in the decrease, above mentioned. The Air Force must continue to invest heavily in human-platform interface, increase operator and maintainer training and the development of new career paths. This kind of investment will result in increase system flexibility and to a continued reduce number in mishaps situations attributed to human factors.

In the near future, it’s unlikely that unmanned platforms will demonstrate the same reliability as their manned counterparts. The ever expanding threat environment and the accelerated pace of incoming technology upgrades, create their own set of challenge to the Air Force. Current aircraft, including unmanned ones, are limited somewhat in their payload capacity and mission profile. As current enemies use commercially available technologies with a short-cycle, future weapons platforms must be able to adapt quickly and incorporated new capabilities. The Air Force must find a way to adopt and integrate advance systems as quick as possible before the next major leap in technologies make those systems obsolete. They should explore new promising technologies such as lighter than air platforms and near space aircrafts, morphine structures, advance propulsion systems, advance human interfaces, and direct energy systems. Also, developmental investment should be made in the defence of those systems, because current and future adversaries might do the same in the future.

V. The Near Future

The future role of the UAV and RPA platforms are as limited as their manned counterparts. Future UAV systems will be capable of not only performing ISR missions, but targeting pin, and spectrum data collection. New onboard sensors will allow the platforms to perform current-time battle assessment, some systems will carry a blue force tracking system, enable them to recognize friend or foe assets. All platforms will be able to perform communication bridges between operational package systems, thus dramatically reducing the time data is transfer from platform to platform. All of these newly incorporated profiles will not subtract from the UAV main operational objective, vast data collection.

The area which holds to our imagination and provides the greatest potential is the arming of the UAV and RPA platforms. This alternative will provide the military with a low cost, low risk alternative to a manned aircraft mission. Either operating as part as a manned-unmanned strike envelop, or as stand-alone platform, the UVA will have ability to suppress enemy air defences by the employment of kinetic and non-kinetic weapon systems. They can capitalize on their low observable characteristic and long endurance profiles in order to hunt and destroy time-sensitive enemy targets. The third generations of UAV platforms are likely to be able to carry a more diverse offensive and defensive payload, providing field commanders with an added current-time retaliation option. Unmanned systems will also be deployed for psychological operations. They can broadcast radio signals to enemy troops as well as deliver propaganda leaflets. They also will conduct high-risk, electronic suppression missions deep inside the enemy’s airspace; decoys missions are also planned for the UAV, all in an effort to disable the enemy’s ability to track incoming manned packages. What the future holds for the UAV and RPA systems, is almost the same we once thought about manned aviation, technology just need to catch up with ideas and concepts.