In the aftermath of Sept. 11: opportunities for UAVs

Dec. 1, 2001
UAVs are neither low-cost nor limited-capability anymore

John Rhea

UAVs are neither low-cost nor limited-capability anymore

WASHINGTON — Innovation is always a hard sell among military leaders. They are inherently conservative since they deal with human lives, and consequently they traditionally resist new technologies.

Historically, some exceptions to this rule have been the synergistic roles that railroads and telegraph lines played in the American Civil War, and the roles that helicopters played in Vietnam.

It may be time for a new exception.

The very nature of the current anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan, in which allied forces seek to destroy an elusive, fanatical foe that operates beyond fixed borders, represents a rare window of opportunity for technologies that have to date been languishing in defense research laboratories.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are thrusting into the spotlight as the U.S. Air Force's Predator and high-altitude Global Hawk have been begun playing new roles. Although the Pentagon won't confirm the fact, it is generally accepted that the Predators, built by General Atomics in San Diego, have begun firing Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan — and soon may be adding Stinger missiles to their payload. Defense officials will only confirm that Hellfires have been successfully test fired from Predators at the Indian Springs Auxiliary Airfield in Nevada.

This represents an evolving role for UAVs, which were originally only low-cost, limited-capability target drones and were later upgraded to performing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance roles. Predators, equipped with electro-optical sensors and infrared video cameras, flew 50 sorties in Kosovo in support of targeting operations, according to defense officials. They also carried laser designators to enable fighter aircraft to attack targets.

UAVs are neither low-cost nor limited-capability anymore. The Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman's Ryan Aeronautical Center in San Diego has a wingspan comparable to a Boeing 737 and has been flown to altitudes of 65,000 feet. Its payload is expected to reach 3,000 pounds (vs. 450 for Predator) and it was deployed to training exercises in Australia this spring in what was the first trans-Pacific flight of a UAV.

The term unmanned is something of a misnomer. There is no such thing as an unmanned aircraft any more than there is an unmanned spacecraft. A human is always in the control loop; in the case of Predator people remotely fly the aircraft in real time with ground-based flight instruments, a joystick, and rudder pedals.

As the supporting electronic technologies evolve, however, the human role will diminish to overseeing the onboard control system and responding to contingencies. Global Hawk, for example, has an automated landing system.

This trend is already visible in so-called manned aircraft. Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering at Duke University in Durham, N.C., has quipped that future aircraft cockpits will contain two inhabitants: a pilot and a dog. The pilot's job will be to feed the dog, and the dog's job will be to bite the pilot if he tries to touch the flight controls.

The built-in resistance of the military leadership to such new ideas as UAVs is not yet a thing of the past, but all the services are scrambling to get on board this new technology. At the opposite end of the spectrum from Global Hawk the Army is testing a small UAV known as Shadow for battlefield commanders, and the Marine Corps has a similar project known as Dragon Eye.

Like the Predator and Global Hawk before them, these new, smaller vehicles tailored for specific applications are relying on research accumulated over the years by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and are likely to switch to operational service through the mechanism of Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations.

This is the moment of opportunity for the electronics industry to introduce its leading-edge technologies, particularly those derived from high-volume commercial applications. The UAVs of the future will need plenty of complex computation for flight control and ordnance delivery, sophisticated sensors for pinpoint targeting, and ever-greater communications bandwidths — all sized to meet daunting weight and volume limitations and all capable of meeting rigorous reliability requirements.

The rewards should more than repay the effort. The avionics content of high-performance manned aircraft already exceeds 40 percent of the flyaway cost, and that content can only increase in the complex UAVs of the future.

In this context, the notion of advanced manned combat aircraft seems a bit anachronistic. The U.S. Air Force on Oct. 26 awarded the prime contract for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to a team headed by Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. The $18.9 billion award for the system development and demonstration phase represents a down payment on what is projected to be a $200 billion project, the largest in military history, to build nearly 3,000 of the aircraft, including 150 for the British navy and air force.

Don't bet on it. UAVs are unlikely ever to totally replace traditional manned aircraft, but the trend in division of roles will inevitably move in the direction of UAVs. The stumbling block in the past, in addition to predictable inertia on the part of the decision-makers, has been bona fide concerns about the UAVs' abilities to perform those roles.

The necessary supporting electronics technologies are surely available today, and the UAV enthusiasts within the military services are eager to put them to work. "Obviously, unmanned aerial vehicles don't put lives at risk," a senior defense official told an Oct. 31 Pentagon news briefing on UAVs, "and that's a key point." I wouldn't be optimistic about seeing the 3,000th JSF roll off the production line. Or the 2,000th.

Extraordinary situations create extraordinary opportunities, and a useful insight comes from a leader in the financial community. "This is a new war that will require new weapons," says John Kutler, chairman of Quarterdeck Investment Partners, a Los Angeles firm that focuses on aerospace and defense issues.

"The Pentagon has been paying lip service over the past years to its need to find a new mission in the post-Cold War environment," Kutler contends. "Unfortunately, it didn't find the mission. The mission found it."

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!