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What's Next for Drone Warfare?

July 7, 2016 (Photo Credit: Staff Illustration)

The Air Force, once reluctant to accept unmanned drones as part of its combat force, now recognizes their value for missions such as surveillance and isolated attacks that are better suited for unmanned than manned aircraft. But, the Air Force needs to replace the hodgepodge of drones in its inventory with a force optimized to meet future scenarios in which they can excel. The next evolutionary step for remotely piloted aircraft -- RPAs, as the Air Force calls them -- is to refine their roles and operational concepts better, and put them through normal DoD requirements and acquisition processes and incorporate them as an integral part of the Air Force structure.

The Air Force operates Predator and Reaper RPAs, the first generation of unmanned strike aircraft. Most are flown from Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. B-1 bombers and manned aircraft have also flown sorties on precision strikes against terrorist targets in the Middle East. The rush to get large numbers of RPAs quickly to surveil and attack terrorist threats in Iraq caused impulsive decisions.

Consequently, this force was thrown together more like a neighborhood pick-up team, not designed or procured through a rigorous requirements-based acquisition process nor positioned optimally for missions they fly. Now, the Air Force finds itself with RPAs and mission-control centers not well suited to the challenges they will face in the future.

Experience has shown that RPAs fill a critical need in warfare. Their characteristics of endurance, long range, continuous surveillance of broad and narrow areas, and immediate on-call precision attack of small, high-value targets in low-threat airspace make them preferable to manned aircraft in many scenarios.

The way forward should be to design, develop and procure the next generation of RPAs to perform missions in which RPAs have shown their advantages over manned aircraft while not trying to perform missions better suited to manned aircraft. The domain for this next generation of RPAs is vast, and it need not conflict with the domain of manned aircraft, a contentious aspect that has impeded their acceptance and future roles. Manned and unmanned combat aircraft can coexist, but to operate in synergy, they must be designed to take advantage of the strengths of each.

There is no shortage of scenarios well suited to this next generation of combat RPAs. Obviously, their current effectiveness can be improved with all-weather stealth technology, longer endurance, better sensors, larger payloads and connectivity to the global "info-sphere". With these improvements, they can cover targets in other regions where terrorists congregate, such as North Africa, Yemen, Somalia and Southwest Asia. Further, with an optimized vehicle, RPAs can be incorporated into war plans against aggressive nation-state adversaries.

Next-generation RPAs can also be the foundation for enforcing international truces and treaties. They can provide continuous, high-resolution surveillance of important facilities to detect activity that could violate agreements, and immediately strike targets.

Establishing no-fly zones over contested areas is a viable alternative to nation-building. The continuous no-fly zones over Iraq for twelve years after the First Gulf War in 1991 demonstrated their effectiveness as a deterrent to further warfare. No-fly, no-drive zones patrolled with RPAs and manned aircraft can detect and strike any air or ground target, obviate the need for "boots on the ground", and maintain air dominance over the area. 

In the same vein, new, optimized RPAs would be the best choice for tracking activity and exerting U.S. influence in hot spots such as the Ukraine, Taiwan Straits, North Korea, Spratley Islands and Central America. 

A new fleet does not require new infrastructure. Today's RPAs have capable ground-based flight and mission-control facilities, and robust, jam-resistant data links. Fortunately, programs are already underway to upgrade them such that fielding a new force of RPAs would require little, if any, additional capabilities. And, the global info-sphere of space-borne, networked communications already exists to link RPAs in any region of the world.

The current fleets of Air Force RPAs were bought hastily to meet the immediate demands of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are unsuited for future world-wide scenarios. The Air Force now has an opportunity to put together an orderly program to replace the current RPA inventory with RPAs designed and developed from the outset for future roles and missions in which they can excel.

The Air Force is reconstituting its development planning process to be responsive to DoD’s push for acquisition reform under its Better Buying Power initiative. The service has done well in planning the development of manned aircraft. The same logical, disciplined development process should be applied to the next generation of combat RPAs. The result will yield the right combination of manned and unmanned combat airpower to ensure air dominance for any future contingency across the full spectrum of conflict.

Retired Gen. John Loh is a former Air Force vice chief of staff and former commander of Air Combat Command. Retired Gen. Ronald Yates is a former commander of Air Force Systems Command and Air Force Materiel Command.

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