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Post-Modern Warfighting with Unmanned Vehicle Systems: Esoteric Chimera or Essential Capability?

Author: Burridge, Brian Source: RUSI Journal 150, no. 5 (Oct 2005): p. 20-23 ISSN: 0307-1847 Number: 914833841 Copyright: Copyright Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies Oct 2005

Two years ago I addressed a RUSI Conference on the subject of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). What has changed since then? The lexicon, for one thing. This article covers Unmanned Vehicle Systems (UVSs), of which UAVs are but one element. secondly, the Royal Air Force now has first-hand experience in flying Predator in operational theatres. Thirdly, the expectations of both the informed and uninformed communities have grown massively. The foundations for this step-change in attitudes are questionable, and increased familiarity through media exposure should not be mistaken for hard evidence. Fourthly, the UK defence community has a much clearer idea of where it needs to go with UVSs, what is affordable and what capability might be achievable. In this article I will look at capability in its broader sense and thus answer my own somewhat impish question:'Esoteric Chimera or Essential Capability?'

Two years ago, the argument was left hanging. On the one hand, I pointed out the challenges represented by the need for interoperability of systems, their vulnerability, their limited capacity to address a wide surveillance area, their insatiable demand for bandwidth and their inability to deal with ambiguity in quite the same way as a manned aircraft. On the plus side, they deal well with the '3D' tasks: dull, dirty and dangerous. They also provide potential response at a number of levels. They can resolve tactical firepower problems just as well as they can answer a strategic level commander's critical information requirement. Switching between these is easy in terms of re-tasking. They increase stand-off ranges for kinetic and, plausibly, non-kinetic or cognitive attack simply by conducting the 'find' element of the 'find, fix and strike' equation as a minimum to conducting the whole event as a maximum. They also bring us nearer to the holy grail of air power: persistence. But persistence to do what? What effect can we realistically expect UVSs to achieve in the ambiguous, non-linear : battle-space of today and tomorrow?

If we look back to the Bekaa valley conflicts of the early seventies we see an exemplar use of the Remote Piloted Vehicles (RPV) concept in modern warfare. Indeed, Israel has remained at the forefront of UAV development ever since. The use of RPVs not much more sophisticated than model aeroplanes saw widespread disruption of a complex air defence environment in order to allow conventional manned aircraft to further exploit the battle-space. However, this initial promise of 'cheap and cheerful' platforms with widespread utility has in many cases been replaced by the procurement of expensive, technologically complex RPVs constrained by ever increasing airspace compliance issues. Moreover, the current manpower burden of RPV operations should not be underestimated. As part of the Predator Task Force at Nellis Air Force Base, the Royal Air Force undertakes to man a single Predator A orbit as part of the collation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) effort. This unit, 1115 Flight, comprises a total of fortyfour RAF personnel. This is important as a piece of experimentation. I judge that we will hear a lot about experimentation and spiral development in connection with UAVs in the future. A current aspiration with unmanned aircraft is that they should result in a reduced manpower burden, though in simple terms this has yet to be proven. A Predator A can orbit for twenty hours, it requires two crew who operate for eight hours each - that means a total of six crew per Predator - and that is just the operator budget. The analysts, datalink managers, engineers in the deployed location and the further crews required to launch and recover in theatre mean that current unmanned aircraft operations are actually manpower intensive - a difficult concept to get across to a financier. This adds a difficult extra dimension to current UK policy that maintains UAVs and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) must buy their way into the force mix. The very real dilemma that we need to answer is: are we pursuing the correct development path for the future needs of air power or are we being seduced by technology and a perceived need to remove the man from the cockpit?

US Air Force Captain manoeuvres an unmanned Predator reconnaissance airplane over Iraq by remote control at Balad Air Base, Iraq, 2 July 2004.

The military, and in particular 'airmen', have a very real affinity with the latest technology and often overlook the softer issues connected with military operations. When I look into the future of UAVs, and in particular UCAVs, I see an urgent need to address such problems - perhaps even ahead of some of the technological issues. We are currently confined to remotely operating UAVs; the man, or woman, is still a fundamental requirement for the operation of the UAV. This still applies whether it is a pilot and sensor operator in the case of Predator or a computer operator in the case of other platforms. In both cases, a person executes key functions to enable the delivery of the required output more fundamentally the person is reliant on experience gained in previous military operations. In the case of the Predator crew, they owe their ability to interact with other units and operate safely within the airspace through experience of operating manned platforms in the same environment. In simple terms, they have an understanding of the needs of the other units simply because they have a shared connection with them. In the future, the so-called 'Play Station' operator may never have experienced actual combat in a manned platform; he has no connection with these other units, no shared experience. How does he connect with his Army colleagues at Staff College who fought in that urban battlefield whilst he sat back in the UK, dropping the children off at school on the way to 'work'?

Moreover, with the ever-increasing lethality and persistence of UAVs such as Predator B, how do we stop this generation becoming the 'playground bully' of the battlefield? The simplicity of 'drop and drag' mouse operations on a laptop has no connection with the consequences on the other side of the world. US Air Force pilots operating over the jungles of Vietnam had a much lower incidence of psychological problems than their US Army colleagues some 10,000 feet below them. The term 'morality of altitude' was coined to understand the disconnection of the pilot from the destruction he caused on the ground. Right now a similar situation is potentially in existence through reach-back operations. I am also on record as placing a question mark over the way in which international law will interpret robotic warfare in the future. The 'morality of altitude' is at the heart of the debate. Feeling the granularity of the battlespace is the key issue in interpreting the Rules of Engagement.

Many will be very familiar with this particular beast: the X45A. In a recent test sortie in the US, two of these aircraft operated 'autonomously' as a formation. During this sortie they 'decided' between them which aircraft was best placed to carry out a simulated attack, executed the attack and flew home safely. The key word here is autonomous; and more importantly, autonomous from whom? These beasts were not born, are not organic and do not possess artificial intelligence - yet. So, in actual fact, are they autonomous? I will be bold (or unwise) enough to speculate that they will never be so. They are reliant on software, tasking, programming, refuelling, re-arming, assembly and myriad other support functions. They are as reliant on human support as their manned F-16 cousin. So how do they achieve their supposed autonomy? At its very simplest level they are programmed in the same way as any other 'robotic system'. Hence, they are reliant on an experienced programmer, a programmer who in the future may not have any experience of combat operations in a manned platform.

All we have actually achieved is to further remove the 'remote pilot' from the system and place him within the industrial or military support base. Does this further exacerbate the disconnection of airpower from the shared battle-space, and does it also exacerbate the potential for the 'playground bully' resident in us all to emerge? Put simply, could this be the route to that 'esoteric chimera' to which I alluded to earlier? If my view on this pathway to autonomy is not convincing, perhaps this recent description of DARPA's work is.

They will also need to be extremely autonomous in their operation, with a high level of Al that can respond to (probably spoken) orders like, 'check out what is behind that warehouse' and that also can navigate around, over and under obstacles in a cluttered urban environment.

When trying to understand the importance of UAVs to the RAF we really need to understand their benefits, as well as the pitfalls I have outlined previously. In the era of Effects Based150, no. 5 (Oct 2005): p. 20-23 Operations, ISR becomes ever more important - the simple need to understand what is actually going on and how to influence the outcome more effectively. The plain fact is that UAVs allow us to overcome some fairly fundamental human limitations. As a former maritime pilot, I have done my fair share of long sorties, but even I would wince at twenty-four hours or more. Equally, flying my Nimrod 'downtown' on the first night of Operation Telic or across the skies of Belgrade in 1999 would have caused me considerable angst. So certain tasks and certain areas of the battle-space naturally lend themselves to 'remotely piloted' operations. We need to understand which areas and which tasks. Moreover, we need to ensure that we attain the right mix of manned and unmanned platforms to ensure cost-effective delivery of air power right across the spectrum of conflict. As an example, unwrapping an X47 for operations in Sierra Leone is perhaps wasteful due to the lack of an integrated air defence system, yet deploying a Harrier GR9 from the deck of HMS Ark Royal is balanced, proportionate, effective and sends a very clear message, too.

This simple example typifies the UK approach to UAVs: they need to buy their way into the force mix and, where possible, have utility across the spectrum of conflict. Equally, we will not simply be seduced by the shiny new toys on offer and will take a measured approach to UAV procurement. Part of this strategy is gaining an understanding of the systems on offer in an attempt to attain that intelligent customer status espoused by the Smart Acquisition process. As an example of this thirst for knowledge, the Joint UAV Experimentation Team from the UK's Air Warfare Centre undertook Trial Falcon Prowl during the latter half of last year. This trial saw the successful integration of the DB110 reconnaissance sensor onto a General Atomics Predator B airframe. A quick look at the potential of this combination perhaps provides a glimpse into future UAV development On this platform we have a day/night, widearea surveillance capability through the pod on the wing, an all-weather sensor via the internal synthetic aperture radar, a targeting or focus sensor via the electrooptical ball and the potential to carry high-end ordnance on six wing stations. Overall, the potential for a five-minute kill chain. We in the UK now understand the needs, wants and desires of this type of platform and are much better informed; needless to say, these lessons will be applied to future procurement and force development processes - another example of experimentation.

But other uses are looming on the horizon. The notion of transport or resupply UAVs is actively under consideration in the US. In commenting on Project Nightingale, Waldo Carmona, Director Boeing Advanced Army Rotorcraft Systems, said:

What we 're proposing is that very, very quickly, we use the Little Bird to show that we can distribute 1,000lbs payloads and go 400 nautical miles.

Much of what I have discussed previously has focused on the human dimension of UAVs and their potential operational benefits; however, without effective training we couid be faced with the very real possibility of unwrapping one of these systems for the first time on operations. My simple military mind does not see that as a sensible or viable option - although I am sure accountants within the MoD see this as particularly attractive. As many UAV specialists are all too well aware, this has the potential to be the biggest challenge in the next few years. The need to integrate within the available training airspace could at first be seen as an unnecessary burden which has little relevance to operations; however, key technology areas such as 'sense and avoid', or more simple collision avoidance systems, have utility within the battlespace. Indeed, within a complex nonlinear battle-space, there is the very real possibility of having to comply with civilian airspace constraints during actual combat operations. For those who think that to be a little too far fetched, Iraqi airspace now contains numerous airways with civilian airliners transiting over the country. So those programmes looking at airspace interaction of UAVs are important to us in the military; indeed, they could also solve our need for realistic training with LJAVs. Many of these issues have as much relevance to the commercial sector as they do to me in the RAF, and through effective partnerships I believe we can solve many of these issues to the benefit of both parties. Indeed, the European Commission's project CAPECON (Civil UAV Applications and Economic Effectiveness of Potential Configuration Solution) had a specific objective to allow easier UAV integration into nonsegregated airspace.

So returning to my original question the title of this article. Do UAVs represent an essential capability? The simple answer is Yes; but for the right task, in the right area and at the right price. Those who are lured by expensive technologies without a deeper understanding of how to use them, task them and integrate them will be left with empty pockets and shiny toys - the 'esoteric chimera' I referred to earlier. Those that understand their limitations, benefits and the most important of all, the human dimension, will be left with a little more money to spend elsewhere and an essential capability that they can use effectively.

As a final thought, we need to understand that powered aeroplanes have been flying for over 100 years. UAVs do not obey a different set of physical laws to those manned platforms that have gone before them; they can simply operate in areas we do not want to send a manned platform or do not need to send a manned platform. So my familiar bumpersticker remains: before we say, 'Gee, Yes!' to UAVs, we must answer the two questions, 'Why?' and 'How much?'

The military, and in particular 'airmen', have a very real affinity with the latest technology and often overlook the softer issues connected with military operations

In the future, the socalled 'Play Station' operator may never have experienced actual combat in a manned platform

The 'morality of altitude' is at the heart of the debate

We will not simply be seduced by the shiny new toys on offer and will take a measured approach to UAV procurement

Without effective training we could be faced with the very real possibility of unwrapping one of these systems for the first time on operations

Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge is Commander-in-Chief Strike. In 2003 he commanded the 43,000-strong UK Joint Force during the combat phase and early weeks of the aftermath of the Iraq War. This article is based on his address to RUSI's Unmanned Vehicle Systems conference on 12 July 2005

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