There is a great article in the Flight Global Club today, about UAVs and the Area Denial threat against them. It's a membership area, but it's free
if you want to sign up and read it. Well worth the read.
Ever since the Pentagon announced plans to shift to the Pacific, people in the know have been saying that the current UAVs are highly inadequate for
the missions they'll be asked to perform. They work wonderfully in permissive airspace, the problem comes when airspace is contested. They
wouldn't survive for more than a few minutes at most (and that probably because it takes that long to get around to shooting them down).
No less an authority than Gen Mike Hostage, commander of the USAF's Air Combat Command, has questioned the relevance of the current unmanned
aircraft fleet in the Western Pacific. "We are now shifting to a theatre where there is an adversary out there who is going to have a vote on whether
I have that staring eye over the battlefield 24 [hours], seven [days a week], 365 [days a year], and pretty certain they are not going to allow that
to happen," Hostage said, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in late 2012. "The fleet I've built up - and I'm still
being prodded to build up too - is not relevant in that new theatre."
Even the US Navy's UCLASS program will be less than relevant. The new requirements are for an aircraft that could survive in lightly contested
airspace, with an ISR primary mission, and light strike requirements, not a penetrating aircraft in any sense of the words.
However, the UCLASS project is turning out to be far less ambitious than initially expected. Rather than an ultra-long-range, stealthy, unmanned
carrier-based bomber with a hefty payload, final navy requirements call for the UCLASS to be little more than a modestly stealthy jet-powered
It will not be a penetrating strike aircraft in any real sense, as the requirements primarily call for the UCLASS to operate in lightly contested
airspace. Furthermore, the aircraft is primarily geared towards the ISR role, with a light secondary strike mission.
As currently envisioned, the UCLASS will have a total payload of 1,360kg (3,000lb), of which only 454kg would consist of air-to-ground
It's been said that UCLASS will be nothing more than a Predator capable of operating off a deck, instead of the truly revolutionary, penetrating
airframe that they have the chance to create.
One of the problems with UAVs and contested airspace, is communications. The satellite link is both detectable, and jammable. Neither is easy to do,
but both can be done. If current UAVs lose their communications, even for a short time they execute "lost link protocols" which can include flying
in a fixed location until the link comes back up.
One suggestion is something that has been proposed before, that is using UAVs as wingmen for manned aircraft. That would put them close enough to
punch through jamming with a Link 16 style datalink, as well as giving the manned aircraft extra sensors on the UAV.
The ultimate solution would be making them fully autonomous, but that is a long way away from occurring.
Longer term, Gunzinger says unmanned aircraft have to become more autonomous if they are to be able to operate over the horizon inside contested
airspace. It will take time to develop certain higher order functions, such as co-ordinating multiple air vehicles without a man-in-the-loop or
avoiding pop-up threats, but Gunzinger believes more autonomous UAVs are technically feasible: "That's within the realm of emerging technology. We
can have a more autonomous UAS today, for example, UAS capable of autonomous air refuelling that could greatly extend their range and endurance."
But Pietrucha says true autonomy is not technically feasible: "I had this discussion a couple of months ago with a bunch of the artificial
intelligence guys from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. Their answer on the true autonomy piece is 'no way in any type of foreseeable
future', because you need something like the transistor to come along: the unpredictable breakthrough in cybernetics or robotics."
If the military wanted to make them autonomous and hit fixed locations, that would be doable, with something like an RQ-170 program. It would be
fairly simple to develop an armed Sentinel that could fly to programmed locations, and hit fixed targets, such as fixed SAM sites, or command and
control locations. The big limitation is that they can't provide a damage assessment, so you won't know right away if they hit their target, or how
badly damaged it is.
The bottom line is that if the UAV is to remain relevant to future operations, the military is going to have to take a chance and develop an aircraft
capable of penetrating hostile airspace, and not just fly around when there is no threat to them, or a very limited threat. If they're not willing
to do that, then the UAV will be nothing but a fad, and the risk becomes someone that's less than friendly develops one, with the associated upgrades
to technologies, and catches us flat footed if something were to happen.