Small Wars Journal

Drone Wars? Not Quite.

Tue, 10/11/2011 - 3:04pm

I'll be the first to admit it:  drones are quite the rage.

In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hinted that the F-35 Lightning II might be the last manned fighter ever fielded.  

He's not alone, either.  For years, headlines have heralded the end of manned flight, and the coming drone wars.   Not to mention, Twitter is littered with several accounts ostensibly belonging to self-aware drones:  Drunken PredatorsParty ReapersSexy Ravens, and the like.

While the bulk of military technology has remained relatively stagnant over the last decade of war, unmanned aerial vehicles have taken off.  Rifle companies roll into battle with hand-held Raven UAVs, while brigades and divisions are armed with Shadow and Grey Eagles.  According to a recent New York Times article, the Pentagon's unmanned arsenal has grown from 50 to 7,000 unmanned vehicles in just ten years.

But will our military become a pseudo-Cylon force by the end of the century?  Perhaps not.

Peter Singer, author of Wired for War:  The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century was interviewed in a recent article in The Economist:

[A]t a time of falling defence spending, UAS procurement and development may lack allies against powerful and conservative constituencies. These include sceptical military bureaucrats, fast-jet pilots, and members of Congress fighting to preserve traditional weapons programmes and the jobs that go with them.

But the real impediment to Drone Warfare may be more mundane. 

Recently, Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine revealed that America's drone fleet was hit with a computer virus.  What's more is that the data links which control America's fleet of drones is suceptible to jamming and anti-satellite technology, video feeds have been hacked, and GPS signals can be jammed.  

Drones may be able to stay aloft for 36 hours without a break, but human beings can't be jammed or  hacked.  In the 21st Century, that might make all the difference in the world.

The author is a helicopter pilot qualified in the UH-60 Black Hawk and LUH-72 Lakota helicopters.  Serving as the lead Observer/Controller for Unmanned Aerial Systems at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, he has logged approximately 5.3 hours walking through the forest in Germany in search of wayward Raven UAVs.  With little success, one might add...


Scott Kinner

Wed, 10/12/2011 - 11:34am

Truly much of this debate occurs in the vacuum created by the lack of any credible threat. Vietnam was the last conflict in which this country faced a substantial air threat in which thousands of aircraft and aircrew were lost, and which necessitated the maturation of the "strike package" - a creature possessing significant amounts of energy and resources, coordinated and synchronized, to get a weapon to a target.

Since then, the United States has been able to do pretty much what it wanted to do in the air and space domains - especially if using the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam conflicts as benchmarks for "contested" control of the air domain.

Creating weapons, doctrine, and employment in this environment is dangerous - a variation on "fighting the last war." Retired MajGen Dunlap hinted as much in his NPR interview (reference the SWJ link dtd 11 Oct) when he pointed out that the US is operating drones in an uncontested environment. His response was to the concern about drone employment against the United States, which supposedly has an air defense system.

But the reverse applies - creating doctrine based on experience in a realm in which the enemy does not get to vote is hardly a recipe for success when placed in a situation where the enemy does get such a choice.

The use of the word "irrelevant" is inappropriate - but I would say that the argument about manned versus unmanned air platforms, while important, is entirely secondary to determining the role of airpower. If we do not put some thought into what we actually need to be doing in air and space, in environments both contested and uncontested, than the "how" of what we are going to do may actually become "irrelevant."



Wed, 10/12/2011 - 2:53am

In reply to by Jack Gander

I admit I was exagerating (sic) somewhat for effect, but not much. Some of the airplanes out there are quite old and the only real computer on board is the GPS. If that goes out you can still do it just like Mick Mannock did it. I understand your point, but my point is if the box goes out and there is no man there to back it up, the drone is useless. If the box goes out and there is a man to back it up, the airplane may be less effective but it can still fight.

You can make these machines as dependent upon electronics as you want or don't want. A Skyraider was pretty effective and the only computer on board was between the pilots ears.

I understand the drones are extremely useful but I fear they are being oversold. They may eventually be able to do all the things the enthusiasts say they can do but it won't be for several decades at least. I don't want to see us do what the British did in the 50s when they essentially abandoned manned aircraft in favor of missiles only to discover that missiles couldn't do it.

Jack Gander

Wed, 10/12/2011 - 2:14am

In reply to by carl

You make the assumption that your aircraft is still operating "after every computer and every electronic component failed". Your manned personal transportation system (automobile) would shut down immediately in that situation, why would your more sophisticated AC still continue to operate in a similar situation? Again you may be able to get home, but are you combat effective in that situation. My point was that both modern manned and unmanned systems are dependent to some extent on information systems or electronics and both are vulnerable.

Agree it is an interesting point about losing control of UAVs.


Wed, 10/12/2011 - 3:00am

In reply to by Jack Gander

Agreed. Men make mistakes, tragic ones; but comic ones too if God smiles upon you and you luck out.

To expand upon my point above, drone enthusiasts tend to minimize the often tenuous hold they have on those things. They market them as being foolproof. They ain't.

Jack Gander

Wed, 10/12/2011 - 1:56am

In reply to by carl

I thought about posting a witty reply but the subject is nothing to joke about. Lets just say there are more examples of pilot error/human factors causing loss of life or equipment.


Tue, 10/11/2011 - 11:36pm

In reply to by carl

I should ain't lived until you've walked into a TOC and saw the battle captain looking at a big screen display with a bemused look on his face.
"What are you looking at?"
"That drone over there."
"Where is it headed?"
"Well, we don't know exactly."


Tue, 10/11/2011 - 11:28pm

In reply to by Jack Gander

Believe it or not, if the every computer and electronic component in the airplane failed, I could still find my way not only home, but just about anywhere by looking out the window and using a piece of paper with some markings on it. Other airplanes could be coordinated with using ICOM type radios, detailed pre-flight briefs and hand, head or aircraft motion signals. People on the ground can be communicated with using message drops, or signal panels or patterns stomped into the snow. Whole formations and air forces can be effectively used without a single radio disturbing the ether or a single computer causing frustration when it crashed.

All the these things were done for decades before Mr. IBM punched his first card. Check out the complexity of air operations in WWI. Things weren't done as adroitly as they can sometimes be in the computer age, but they were done. And nobody could manipulate a stream of electrons to cause the pilot of a Sopwith Dolphin to register a Fokker D VII as something other than a Fokker D VII.

The advantages man brings to the cockpit are very great; looking out the window and the ability to judge situations based on experience, personal and vicarious, the ability to gain experience by the second, and to come up with something nobody ever thought of before are all things the trontastic boxes can't do.

Mr. Burke brings up the critical point. Can we guarentee (sic) that we can control the drones if we went up against somebody who is as good at EW as we are. I wouldn't bet on it.

Jack Gander

Tue, 10/11/2011 - 6:51pm

The human in the cockpit is the limiting factor to significant advancements in fixed wing aircraft.

Are you assuming the data links, navigation systems, GPS, software applications and communication networks on your airframe are not subject to hacking or jamming? Do you think your supply chain is so "air tight" that malware couldn't be inserted during upgrades or testing? I think both manned and unmanned AC are equally dependent on data systems to operate properly and therefore both are equally vulnerable.

Yes a manned system may be able to RTB, but that's really about the only advantage.


Tue, 10/11/2011 - 3:41pm

Outsourcing humanity for semi autonomous machines. Who will hold a job in the DoD 30 years from now. Reverse engineering the brain and artificial intelligence development is all the rage right now. I wonder if it possible to create that 'global information grid' for the sake of total information awareness when there are no boots on the ground. Will the battle tested field generals be sent packing, only to replace them with drones who shoot first and ask no questions? Is this what military strategists truly desire?

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