Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Proving Their Worth Over Afghanistan
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 16, 2002 For years, military thinkers have tried to harness the power of unmanned aerial vehicles. Changes in technology mean that members of today's military are able to put that promise to work.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the services' leadership have long recognized the "transformational" capabilities inherent in UAVs. The accomplishments of the Air Force Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan demonstrate these systems' abilities and point the way to the future. Rumsfeld added over $1 billion to UAV programs in the fiscal 2003 defense budget request to spur progress in these critical capabilities.
A Global Hawk unmanned aircraft in flight.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Unmanned aerial vehicles have many attractions for the military. They can generally be smaller and lighter than manned aircraft because, among other things, they don't need equipment to support a crew. The air vehicle portion of the overall system is also generally cheaper. Today's Predator, for instance, costs about $5 million
Planners are using UAVs for missions too dangerous for manned aircraft. For example, UAVs can be sent to locate surface-to-air missile sites without putting crew members in harm's way.
Right now the ability to "park" a UAV over a trouble spot is one of the systems' greatest advantages, Dyke Weatherington, deputy of the UAV Planning Task Force in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said in a recent interview.
"These systems park over the bad guys, watch them continually, never give them a break from (our monitoring) their activities and severely limit their ability to mount an effective threat," he said.
He said operations in the Balkans demonstrated that an airborne video surveillance system "provides what a warfighter wants -- a persistent CNN 'eye-in-the-sky' sort of capability."
Balkan operations also suggested the logical next step in UAV fielding -- arming the platforms. Operators would see targets of opportunity with UAVs but have to call in manned aircraft to attack them, Weatherington said.
"In many cases, we either couldn't get strikes to the target in time or the manned aircraft couldn't find that target the UAV had found," he said.
"UAV" really applies to any airborne system that has no operator or pilot aboard. This runs the gamut from small systems literally launched by a rubber band, like the Marine Corps' Dragon Eye, to the jet-powered Global Hawk.
There are two general classes of UAVs. The Predator is an example of one type. Ground-bound pilots in a control van use a yoke, stick and rudder to fly the aircraft, Weatherington said.
The Global Hawk is an example of an autonomous UAV, the second type. Specialists program an onboard computer that controls the aircraft flight from point-to-point. The Global Hawk takes off and lands itself. While humans oversee the programming and tell the UAV where to go, it's the onboard computer that actually controls the air vehicle in flight.
The military has about 200 UAVs of all types today. Weatherington said the number is projected to rise dramatically in the next five years to around 500. One exciting new capability that may enter the force is the unmanned combat aerial vehicle.
The UCAV, as it is called, is the first UAV designed from the start to carry weapons. Weatherington said the vehicle will have stealth capabilities and will be designed to go into dangerous areas and destroy targets. Both the Navy and Air Force are working this program from slightly different approaches. The Air Force's cost goal is to bring the UCAV in at about one-third the price of the Joint Strike Fighter, he said.
The Air Force demonstrated the UCAV's viability by arming a Predator with Hellfire anti-armor missiles. Weatherington said the Air Force is also looking at other weapons to place on other UAV aircraft including the bigger, follow-on Predator B. The Air Force envisions using Predators and Predator Bs as hunter-killer teams.
Most Defense Department and service officials believe UAVs are truly transformational. The systems help other manned systems and give operators more capabilities at a reduced cost.
The systems, Weatherington said, represent significant opportunities for the U.S. military to improve the way it conducts operations around the world. Service members would be freed to make critical decisions while letting UAVs do many of both the dull and dangerous missions.
Parking UAVs over bad guys for days or weeks and never giving them a chance to do something unseen is truly transformational, he said.
"The other aspect is that we are doing that without putting service members at risk," he concluded. "Those capabilities really argue that it's appropriate to invest in this technology."