Unmanned vehicles: so ubiquitous they're impossible to ignore

Click to Enlarge By John Keller
Editor in Chief

Based on this issue’s news coverage, you’d think nothing else was going on in the aerospace and defense industry than unmanned vehicles. I can tell you that’s not exactly the case, but it’s sure feeling that way more and more lately.

Unmanned vehicles—those that fly, crawl, and swim—are everywhere in the news, and not just in the pages of this magazine. These unpiloted aircraft, driverless vehicles, and captain-less ships and submarines are considered to be one of the precious-few growth areas in the aerospace and defense market.

Let’s face it, unmanned vehicles are even POLITICALLY CORRECT. An unmanned vehicle doesn’t cost as much as one designed for a human in the driver’s seat, and doesn’t cost nearly as much to train and pay for human operators who fly aircraft or captain ships. One person often can control many unmanned vehicles, which drives down operating costs, and when they get shot down or captured, there is rarely an international incident and resulting uproar when a shackled aircraft pilot is paraded before TV cameras.

That’s really the point, isn’t it? Unmanned vehicles rarely, if ever, put humans in harm’s way. They’re politically neat and clean, and better still, they can get the job done.

We know from watching all those World War II movies that humans had to steer vehicles toward the enemy to observe or attack the enemy’s positions or means of support. All those B-17s of the U.S. 8th Air Force flying those bombing missions over Germany required a pilot or two to get them in the air and land them, a navigator to get them to their targets, and a bombardier to hit what they came there to destroy.

Is any of that true anymore? Maybe a little, but not much. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for example, can take off and land by themselves, fly pre-programmed routes to areas of operation, and can do some rudimentary reasoning to avoid obstacles or fly toward secondary targets.

With the aid of human operators tucked away safely in buildings back at base, unmanned craft can observe the enemy in detail, and with the right weapons often can select and attack enemy targets. Then they can fly safely back to base. Some of the men who flew those B-17s over Germany 67 years ago are still alive and paying attention. What must they be thinking about today’s UAVs?

Then again, think of those World War II submarine crews that risked their lives sneaking around Japanese harbors under cover of darkness 67 or so years ago to uncover secrets about ship movements and formations? Navy researchers now are asking the defense industry to design a large, pier-launched submarine for exactly the same purpose—traveling long distances and sneaking into enemy harbors to bring back crucial information. No worries anymore about destroyers above raining down depth charges.

No more risk, no more paralyzing fear before the first shots are fired, no more death on the battlefield. We’re rapidly approaching an era in which humans no longer take direct part in the most crucial, history-altering military actions. I suppose this is a good thing, but still I have to wonder.

As we remove humans at a rapid pace from direct roles in life-changing military struggles, how are we to judge the outcomes of military conflicts? What will be affirmed, what will be changed, what will be the lessons learned that could ultimately benefit mankind?

As we take the human out of the equation, I see at least a couple of paths we might go down. Either the conversion from humans to unmanned vehicles could make the entire pursuit of warfare absurd, and eventually obsolete, or the proliferation of unmanned warfighting machines could make the pursuit of war altogether too easy and accessible.

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Mil & Aero Magazine

February 2014
Volume 25, Issue 2
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