Monday, November 3, 2014

Mythbuster: Drones

X-47B Pegasus
Captain Buster felt his stomach tie in knots when he was told the news.  How was this possible?  After countless years as one of the RCAF's most talented pilots, he was now wondering what he would end up doing until retirement.

"Sorry Captain...  But I'm afraid you are now obsolete.  These new drones are cheaper, stealthier, fly longer, and can maneuver way harder than any manned fighter.  They really are the future don't you see?"

Captain Buster was not convinced.  "How is some bucket of bolts going to make up for years of experience?"

"That's the beauty of it, don't you see?  We just upgrade the software every couple of years and these things will be better than you could ever be!  Don't feel so bad.  It's much safer to stay on the ground anyway."

"I don't know how to do anything except fly!  What am I supposed to do?"

"Maybe we can switch you over to flying a transport or something..."

Oh crap.
Drones.

The mere mention of the word brings to mind a deadly swarm of unfeeling, mechanical death machines intent on human destruction.  Or something like that, anyway.  The recent proliferation of UAVs and UCAVs in places like Afghanistan and Iraq certainly do make it seem like airborne combat will soon consist almost entirely of "drones."

UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) certainly do have advantages over traditional combat aircraft.  With no need for a pilot onboard, the aircraft does not have to make concessions to the squishy human pilot.  There is no need for ejection seats, life support systems, or even a cockpit.  The aircraft can be flown into dangerous territory without risking human life.  UAVs do not need to eat, sleep, or take bathroom breaks, allowing them to stay on task for longer.

For high performance aircraft, the advantages of UAVs become even more tempting.  There is no risk of a pilot blacking out due to high-g maneuvers, and the space and weight normally reserved for a cockpit can instead be used for sensors, weapons, or extra fuel.

With all these benefits, it is surely just a matter of time before most modern aircraft are replaced with UCAVs and the like.  Why risk human lives when drones can do the job, right?

MQ-9 Reaper
The truth is, human piloted aircraft will be around for quite some time.  Drones have their advantages, but they are not the be-all, end-all just yet.  Drones have come a long way since their humble beginnings, but they are not ready to replace front-line manned combat aircraft just yet.

The rapid evolution of UAVs lately may give a false indication of just how ready they are for front-line service.  This new found capability did not happen overnight.  In fact, despite their recent publicity, drones themselves are nothing new.

50s era Ryan Q-2 Firebee
UAVs have been around longer than powered flight.  In 1849, Austria loaded up about 200 pilotless balloons with explosives and sent them towards the city of Venice.  Needless to say, relying on timed fuses and wind currents made these early UAVs far less effective than modern GPS guided munitions, but it was pretty impressive thinking for the mid-19th century.

UAVs have slowly evolved over the years, usually acting as remote controlled target drones or rudimentary reconnaissance assets.  Some, like the D-21, certainly looked impressive, but were ultimately failures.

"pwning n00bz"
The last fifteen years has seen a "perfect storm" for the proliferation of UAVs.  Computing power has improved to the point that these aircraft can now act semi-autonomously, so they are no longer just glorified remote controlled planes.  Most still require a "man-in-the-loop" but some, like the RQ-4 Global Hawk can fly virtually untethered to any sort of ground control.

This quantum leap in UAV intelligence has come during a time where they can operate uncontested over low threat airspace like that found in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Normally, these slow moving UAVs would be sitting ducks for enemy fighters, but the lack of any credible aerial threat allows them to operated with near impunity.  Not only that, but ground targets tended to be "soft", requiring only smaller weapons like a 500lb bombs or Hellfire missiles.  This fits well as even larger UCAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper only have a maximum payload of about 3,000 pounds.

This combination of improved computing power combined with low-threat airspace has certainly boosted the UAV's profile, but there are still plenty of areas where UAVs are not going to be performing anytime soon.

Air Superiority

Yeah...  Don't hold your breath.
Not a single UAV ever built, or even planned, has the air-to-air capability to rival even the most modest of modern fighter aircraft.  UCAVs may have the potential to perform extremely high-g maneuvers without blacking out the pilot, but right now their performance is rather limited.  Even advanced UAV demonstrators like the X-47B are subsonic, with design elements focused towards endurance over speed and agility.

Not only that, but no current or planned UAV has the ability to mount air-to-air weaponry like the AIM-9 Sidewinder or AIM-120 AMRAAM.  Predator drones were once fitted with short-range Stinger missiles, but the results were borderline laughable.

Cost

The RQ-4 Global Hawk
UCAVs like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper have low operating costs compared to modern multirole fighters.  This is not due to some special UAV formula.  They are cheaper to fly for the simple reason that they are simple aircraft.  In fact, the Predator uses a small piston engine that would not look out of place under the hood of a Subaru. 

UAVs still need to be maintained by ground crew, and they still need pilots, even if those pilots never leave the ground.  Like any other military asset, their capability is very much determined more based on what high-tech gear they carry inside.  For some, this gear tends to be expensive.

Possibly the most glaring example of this is the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance UAV.  It is definitely impressive, capable of flying at altitudes up to 60,000 feet for over 30 hours at a time.  The Global Hawk is possibly the most advanced UAV currently in existence (that isn't top secret).

All that capability comes at a cost however, and therein lays the Global Hawk's main issue.  Germany has cancelled plans to operate the UAV due to excessive costs and certification issues.  Part of the issue is that UAVs like the Global Hawk are not permitted to fly in civilian airspace.  This hampers their usefulness over crowded regions like western Europe.

Even the USAF finds the RQ-4 a tad expensive.  This fact is especially glaring when the relatively new Global Hawk still does not meet the current operational capabilities of the nearly 60-year-old Lockheed U-2.  This could be excused if the RQ-4 was cheaper to operate...  But it was not initially.  Threat of cancellation managed to get costs down, however.  Ultimately, the RQ-4 will replace the U-2, but only begrudgingly.  

Ethics

"I'm sorry Dave...  But I'm afraid I can't do that."
No discussion about drone warfare is complete without mentioning the ethic debate.  Volumes have been written and likely will be continued to be written well into the future.  This new found capability  raises plenty of philosophical questions:

  • Does war lose meaning when one side does not have to risk its own flesh and blood?
  • Will taking human lives be the result of a simply computer algorithm?
  • Will the proliferation of drones result in our becoming a police-state dystopia?
  • What if the machines rise up against their creator? 
I am not going to pretend to know the answers to these questions, or others like them.  These are the sort of questions that will need to be answered before UCAVs completely replace manned fighter aircraft.  

Optional equipment.

Saab has been proposing an unmanned Gripen.
If anything, the trend in UCAVs is not towards replacing manned aircraft, but supplementing manned aircraft.  The U.S. Navy's UCLASS program is set to develop an aircraft that will fly alongside their Super Hornet and F-35C fleets.  Saab is said to be working on an "unmanned" version of their updated Gripen multirole fighter.

Looking further into the future, early proposals for both the F/A-XX and the Next Generation Bomber call for an "optionally manned" capability.  This would suggest that both aircraft could have both manned and unmanned variants.  Considering that these two aircraft will not see production until the 2030s, it is safe to assume that manned combat aircraft will be around at least until the 22nd century.  

Some so called "experts" may disagree with this, however...

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