The Armed Drone – The Right Way Forward?

Better known in the popular press as the drone, the Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) has been transforming the way in which modern warfare is planned and fought. Without the need to carry a pilot and all the paraphernalia required to keep him or her alive and in the condition to fly and fight, the UAV is much simpler than the manned aeroplane. Without a cockpit, ejection seat, oxygen and air-conditioning systems, instrument displays, linkages between the cockpit and the various moving surfaces, and many other human-related equipment, the UAV is smaller and therefore very considerably cheaper to develop, to procure and also to operate than the equivalent manned aeroplane.

Moreover, as was shown by the great Douglas designer Ed Heinemann in his trimly elegant A-4 Skyhawk lightweight attack aeroplane, the saving of one pound of weight in any one part of the structure results in an overall saving of something in the order of 10 pounds, for supporting structures can be reduced in number and strength, opening the way to the use of less sturdy and therefore lighter primary structural elements, as well as a lower-power engine requiring less fuel to provide the required speed and range.

Just as important, in these times when every life is deemed of huge importance, the use of a UAV removes the pilot from danger.

Yet the UAV is nothing new, for the Ryan Firebee remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), as the UAV was then known, saw extensive US operational service during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Vietnam War. Here the Firebee in its many forms was used for reconnaissance, and also on a more limited scale, for armed attack.

Development of the RPV into the current families of UAVs continued during the later stages of the Cold War, and the size and weight of UAVs was steadily reduced as various miniaturisation technologies were applied to sensors and the airframes to carry them. Small and very economical piston engines, often designed for lightplane use, are now more than adequate to power light short- and medium-range UAVs out to the radius possible with line-of-sight radio control systems. The fuel economy of such engines also provides for tactically significant loiter times over the target area.

For service at higher operational levels, and at altitudes up to and indeed over 60,000 feet, and over ranges very considerably lengthened by enlarged fuel capacities and control via satellite communications, the USA in particular has developed increasingly more sophisticated UAVs with turbojet or even turbofan propulsion.

All of these UAVs have been designed to exploit the steady development of cybernetic and sensor technologies. Cybernetic developments have made the UAV increasingly autonomic, and therefore capable of safely flying itself, with the controller in the associated ground station more a monitor than a ‘hands-on’ pilot. The controller supervises, and is there to take decisions and execute them in the event that a mission has to be altered in the light of emerging requirements or changing threats. Miniaturisation of sensors and the communications that allow the real-time transmission of sensor data to the control station has also transformed the utility of the UAV. Small machines carry under their fuselages one of several types of gyro-stabilised turret fitted with an optronic (low-light TV camera) and/or infra-red sensor, and often a laser rangefinder that can double as a designator for laser-guided weapons. These generally low- and medium-altitude types are complemented by smaller numbers of larger machines, which can carry more advanced sensors such as radar and an electronic support system for the passive detection of electro-magnetic emissions.

So far, all is well and good. It has always been a truism of the military art that knowing what is on the ‘other side of the hill’ offers untold advantages. The first to exploit the reconnaissance capability of the modern UAV was Israel, which was able to complete a thorough assessment of the Syrian air-defence capability during the later 1970s and early 1980s. As a direct result, in 1982 the Israelis were able to destroy or neutralise Syrian air defences in their 1982 operations in southern Lebanon.

Now here comes the rub. If an enemy’s capability can be seen and reported by a UAV, does it not make military sense for that same UAV to carry the weapons that allow that capability’s immediate destruction? The more warfare is fought on the low-intensity or irregular warfare level, as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, the greater is the perceived utility of the armed UAV. With their heavier weapons and increasingly bulky combat kit and communications suites, more conventional ground forces are effectively limited to surface or, at best, helicopter transport for any real degree of tactical mobility. By the time UAV intelligence data have been received, analysed and used for the generation of a tactical plan, and then the relevant forces gathered, briefed and transported to the desired area, a generally more lightly armed and very considerably more mobile enemy has melted away, even if it’s only on hearing the approach of heavy ground vehicles or helicopters.

It’s so much better, the military reasons, that a target is found by a UAV and then destroyed without delay. All that is required is the real-time decision by the relevant personnel in the UAV’s ground station, and the UAV’s possession of the appropriate weapons. Carried on two or four hardpoints below the tactical UAV’s wing, these weapons are generally light air-to-surface missiles with any of several guidance options, and/or lightweight laser-guided bombs.

The advantage of this concept, so the argument goes, is that rapid response allows the target to be engaged within moments of its detection, and destroyed by an accurate weapon generating little in the way of the unpleasantly euphemistic ‘collateral damage’. The alternative, so the proponents of the armed UAV claim, is the lengthy process of calling in ground forces or an air attack, allowing the target forces to disappear and generally resulting in the use of wholly disproportionate strength. This last can result in a significantly higher level of ‘collateral damage’, which is one of the main drivers of disaffection among a population therefore still less likely than before to welcome, let alone accept, any ‘hearts and minds’ approach that is probably being made in much the same period.

I am wholly convinced that the armed UAV can and indeed does play a useful role in modern warfare, especially of the type where forces of wholly disproportionate size and capability are involved. I am just as completely sure that the poor use of the armed UAV has a negative effect far greater than any positive result that may accrue from sensible use of the UAV. So it’s of huge importance that the controllers of armed UAVs, for the most part young men and women who have often reached their adulthood via large periods in front of a monitor playing ‘shoot ‘em up’ computer games, be properly trained.

This means that they should be pilots trained but also combat-experienced in the art as well as science of ground-attack operations. Controllers without such experience can, I believe, slip into the computer gaming cast of mind in which there is no objective reality – targets are not people but merely electronically generated images without any connection with the real world, let alone humanity. In such circumstances ‘collateral damage’ is the inevitable consequence.

I also believe that the existing tendency toward the dehumanisation of any enemy should be countered by making it mandatory for UAV controllers, and pilots of warplanes and combat helicopters for that matter, to be taken periodically to see, hear and smell the real-life consequences of their work in a world which is often very harsh even under the best of conditions. Only then will these young men and women know fully that all war has desperate real-life consequences for men, women and children, together with the livestock on which they all depend. So controllers must come to appreciate, in the full depth of their unconscious as well as conscious minds, that war is not just a ‘game’ seen at a remove on a monitor in an air-conditioned control station with a soft drink to hand and a comfortable, safe bed in prospect after a hot, nourishing meal at the end of a single shift.