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We're giving unmanned vehicle technology the attention it deserves

The growing importance of unman-ned vehicles stands as a testament to the evolution of military technology, and that's the reason that Military & Aerospace Electronics is introducing an unmanned vehicles section in the monthly print magazine and a companion monthly e-newsletter.

Unmanned vehicles on and below the oceans, in the air, in space, and on the ground enable fundamental improvements in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and are poised to take center stage as front-line weapon systems that help keep humans out of harm's way.

It stands to reason that Military & Aerospace Electronics should be paying unmanned vehicles the kind of attention that this new technology deserves. You can find this month's unmanned vehicles section on page 33.

When we look at military history, we can point to a handful of technological breakthroughs over the past 5,000 years that transformed warfare, and gave almost an overwhelming advantage to the forces that had these new technologies.

These breakthroughs include the chariot, which for the first time gave speed and mobility to fighting forces and laid the groundwork for the cavalry. (Chariots also set the standard gauge for modern railroads, but that's another story.)

Sailing ships brought warfare to the oceans. The cannon rendered castles and fortresses obsolete. The machine gun neutralized the infantry and cavalry charge. The submarine to this day remains the only true stealth technology. Paratroopers and helicopter air assault forces did for 20th century warfare what the chariot gave to the ancient world. The aircraft carrier defined the notion of power projection, and the atom bomb remains the most powerful weapon known to man.

These technological breakthroughs initially made their users invincible. It took time, espionage, innovation, and a lot of clever thinking to come up with ways to defeat these technologies. For a good long time, each one was king of the battlefield.

So against this sweep of history, how might unmanned vehicles fit in? Are they as transformative as the chariot, cannon, aircraft carrier, or atom bomb? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Time will tell the true advantages of the unmanned vehicle.

The intelligence-gathering value of unmanned vehicles is well demonstrated. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can remain on station over areas of interest sometimes for days at a time, making them one of the most valuable persistent-surveillance platforms available.

The real combat value of the unmanned vehicle today is far more political than it is military. Unmanned vehicles help keep humans out of harm's way. As a result, battlefield casualties can be reduced, and UAVs cut down on the possibility that a human aircraft pilot will be shot down, taken captive, and remain in the headlines for months, if not years.

As a weapons platform, the UAV with its light missile armament has killed terrorist leaders and taken out attacking forces in the Middle East. As an air-to-air fighter, however, UAVs have yet to demonstrate their prowess in combat. Most of today's UAVs are relatively slow and clumsy, and make easy targets.

Still, the Northrop Grumman X-47 prototype unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) is in advanced tests from aircraft carriers, so its proving day may be close at hand.

So, unmanned vehicles are of growing importance to the U.S. military, and they are to us, too. So take a look at the new unmanned vehicles section on page 33, and subscribe to the monthly Unman-ned Vehicles eNewsletter online at newsletters.html.

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