Future of Military Aviation is Unmanned
Vol 10 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2016
Crystal gazing into the future of military aviation which is heading towards the unmanned arena
Monday, December 5, 2016
Modern day Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have come a long way since Israel used them for real-time surveillance, electronic warfare, and decoys in the Bekka valley operation of 1982. In late 1980s Iran-Iraq war, Iran became the first ever to deploy an armed drone in war firing air-to-surface rockets. American Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)saw action initially in Bosnia and later in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which defined their military importance. Their effectiveness for Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance (ISR) has resulted in the addition of sophisticated payloads. Varying in size from a few ounce micro-UAS to that as large as an airliner, they are today flying multiple missions. Though also referred as Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), or Drones,UAS operate with various degrees of autonomy. They are preferred for missions that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous”for humans. Though evolved for the military, civilian drones vastly outnumber military counterparts with estimates of over a million sold by 2015. Civil applications support a large number of daily chores.
UAS Military Roles and Classification
The UAS could be a fixed-wing aircraft or a rotor craft. The military missions include ‘Target’ for aerial gunnery, ‘Decoy’ for enemy missiles, reconnaissance, battlefield intelligence gathering, unmanned aerial combat missions, operational logistics, and defence research and development. They can be further classified based on range of operations such as Hand-held (2 km), Close-range (10 km), Tactical (160 km), Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE)(over 200 km), and High Altitude Long Range (HALE) with range unlimited. There are also UAS which operate at hypersonic speeds and sub-orbital altitudes, or even faster in low-earth orbit. Newer ones also employ stealth technology. There are miniature UAS of around 25 kilograms and micro air vehicles weighing as low as one gram. The flapping-wing micro-UAS imitate birds or insects; have inherent stealth for spy missions. The Nano Hummingbird is commercially available, and sub-1g micro-UAS inspired by flies, albeit using a power tether, can “land” on vertical surfaces. Other projects include unmanned “beetles” and other insects. Research is exploring miniature optic-flow sensors, mimicking the compound insect eyes which can transmit data.
Unlike human pilot, UAS endurance is not constrained by physiological limits. Wankel rotary engines which are highly fuel efficient are used in many large UAS thus increasing range and payload. Hydrogen fuel cells may extend the endurance of small drones, up to several hours. Micro UAS endurance is so far best achieved by flapping-wings. Solar-electric UAS have achieved flight times of several weeks. Solar-powered atmospheric systems operating at altitudes exceeding 20 km may operate for as long as five years. Electric UAS powered by microwave power transmission or laser power beaming are other potential endurance solutions. RQ-4 Global Hawk, a full-scale operational unmanned system flew for 33 hours in 2008. QinetiQ Zephyr Solar Electric flew foe 336 hours in July 2010.
Proliferation of UAS
UAS are today used by more than 60 countries, with a few making their own. USA is the leader with over 9000 operational military systems which is more than the combined strength of the rest of the world. UAS already outnumber the manned aircraft in US Armed Forces. During theatre level operations in Afghanistan UAS flew nearly 200,000 hours a year. USA is also the lead manufacturer with Israel a close second. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems are world’s leading manufacturers. IAI’s Harpy, Harop, Searcher and Heron are flying world over in large numbers, including in India. Elbit’s Hermes 450 assault UAS carries two missiles. Miniature UAS are being used for visual and audio snooping operating in small confines like rooms or bunkers. Rotary winged UAS (RUAS) such as Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scouts are increasing in numbers. USA manufactures around 50 percent of all military UAS. Yet Israel exported nearly 60 percent UAS. The United Kingdom (34%) and India (13%) are the major importers. The leading civil UAS manufacturer is China. As of February 2016, about 325,000 civilian drones were registered with the US Federal Aviation authority (FAA), though it is estimated more than a million have been sold in the United States alone.
Military Unmanned Systems
Armed UAS or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) such as the General Atomics Predator and Reaper carry air-to-ground missiles and have great combat abilities. The Predator is remotely piloted using satellite data links and can be piloted from thousands of kilometers away. On the other hand, the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk operates virtually autonomously giving live feedback and only needs a command to ‘Take-off and Land’. Advances in technology have enabled more capabilities and Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) are being deployed on the battlefield. UAS roles have thus expanded to include strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defence, electronic warfare, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue, and combinations of these.
The US military operates large numbers of RQ-11B Ravens and AeroVironment RQ-20A Pumas. They have significant numbers of Wasps, Hawk, Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks. As a measure of relative cost, the MQ-9 Reaper costs $12 million while an F-35 costs around $100 million. In 2013, the US Navy launched a UAS from a submerged submarine. MQ-1 Predator is armed with Hellfire missiles and is being used as a platform for ground attack, including assassinating high-profile individuals (terrorist leaders).UAS like RQ-9 Reaper are being used to patrol and secure borders. Payloads like synthetic aperture radar can penetrate clouds, rain or fog and in daytime or night-time conditions. Since 1997, the US military has used more than 80 F-4 Phantoms converted into UAS as aerial targets for combat training of pilots. In 2013 unmanned F-16s joined as more realistically manoeuvrable targets.
Evolving UAS Operational Roles and Strategies
UAS are already taking-off and landing by themselves including on a moving aircraft carrier (Northrop GrummanX-47B). Autonomous air refuelling could leave UAS on station for months and allow them all combat roles. Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone ‘Sea Ghost’ looks rather like a stealth bomber and is expected to carry 1,000-pound class weapons. Boeings Phantom Eye is used as an eye in the sky in battle zones and can operate for four days in continuous flight. In France, Dassault leads a multi nation delta wing UCAV ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 2000. UK’s Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle (SUAVE) program ‘Taranis’ is headed by BAE Systems and is partnered by GE Aviation, Rolls Royce and Qineti Q. This will be a supersonic autonomous stealth bomber with intercontinental range. USAF will get a Hypersonic (Mach 6) Strike Bomber which will be optionally manned. The US Army has plans to shift to all-unmanned systems over the next three decades. USAF’s UAS vision document indicates that by year 2047 every mission including heavy lift would be unmanned. UAS have become too attractive and potent military asset for any significant power to ignore. USAF has nearly 400 active Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper drones in its inventory. USAF trains more UAS pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined.
UAS have much lower training costs and can best concentrate on ISR, close air support and take on some strike missions while air superiority could be handled by manned fighters. Manned aircraft are certainly better in dynamic environment. US Predators and Reapers were designed for counter-terrorism operations and in war zones in which the enemy lacks sufficient firepower to shoot them down. They are not designed to withstand ant-aircraft defences or air-to-air combat in contested environment. The future, UAS will be tasked beyond ISR and strikes. Full-fledged Air-to-air combat capability,increased autonomy and UAS-specific munitions are part of the roadmap.
UAS are already operating in mixed formations under the control of manned aircraft to make “buddy attacks”. Aircrew in the air control a swarm of UAS giving them directions including controlling their attack and weapon release. UCAV is now a “first day of the war” force enabler which complements a strike package by performing the SEAD mission and pre-emptive destruction of sophisticated enemy integrated air defences in advance of the strike package. It operates at a fraction of the total Life Cycle Costs (LCC) of current manned systems. US Navy recently formed its first mixed force squadron with manned and Fire Scout unmanned helicopter.
UAS as an Unconventional Threat
UAS can threaten airspace security through unintentional collision, or even a deliberate attack. UAS could be loaded with dangerous payloads, and crashed into vulnerable targets. Payloads could include explosives, chemical, radiological, biological hazards, or even nuclear payloads. Decision makers must take into account the possible use of UAS by terrorists or unfriendly regimes. Ethical concerns and UAS-related accidents have driven nations to regulate the use of UAS. The export of UAS or technology capable of carrying a 500 kg payload at least 300 km is restricted in many countries by the Missile Technology Control Regime. Most countries have clampdown on all illegal UAS. “Hobby drones” beyond certain weight and range require registration. The immediate concern for all is a possible low-level drone attack. Many countries are working on high powered lasers to damage UAS and send them out of control.
Future is Unmanned
UAS have more than proven their value in the military world. In Libya an American drone identified and attacked the convoy Colonel Gaddafi was travelling in. A few hours later, after fleeing, he was caught by rebels and killed. It is a real time of transition in terms of future aviation. There are those who see the F-35 as the last manned fighter/bomber. Solar powered and optionally manned UAS are already flying. UAS will also ensure no ‘public opinion sensitive’ body bags come back. This could also mean that seemingly clean and safe strikes could allow America to perpetually be at war beyond Congressional scrutiny with no-boots-on-the-ground. The psychological impact on drone operators is significant. Unlike bomber pilots, drone operators linger long after the explosive strike and see its effects on human bodies in stark detail. As a new weapon, drones are having unforeseen political effects. Some argue that the extensive use of drones will undermine the popular legitimacy of local governments, which are blamed for permitting the strikes. Yemen is a good case where drone strikes seem to be increasing resentment against the Yemeni government. A public survey in USA showed that three in every four (75%) of voters approved of the US Military using drones to carry out attacks.
NATO logisticians hit a major milestone in Afghanistan, reaching out when an unmanned K-Max helicopter successfully delivered a sling-load of beans, bullets, and Band-Aids to a forward base. UAS will also perform the role of low-cost test platform for future aircraft. They will serve as a bridge between wind tunnel and manned flight testing of a wide array of high risk technologies. Government-sponsored hackers are also interested in learning more about drones, and UAS data-link attacks would be the weapon of the future. Technologically, UAS are still more accident prone and are bandwidth hogs. Global Hawks require nearly 500 megabytes per second. USA will have over a 100 Global hawks by 2020. In March 2013, DARPA began efforts to develop a fleet of small naval vessels capable of launching and retrieving combat drones without the need for large and expensive Aircraft Carriers. In November 2014, the Pentagon made an open request for ideas on how to build a flying aircraft carrier that can launch and retrieve drones using existing military aircraft such as the B-1, B-52 or C-130. The USAF UAS vision 2030 document predicts every conceivable aircraft role could be handled by the UAS fleet including that of Airlift, AWACS and Counter Air Strikes.
India’s Unfolding UAS Scene
No one shares high-end UAS technologies. Indian armed Forces operate nearly 150 Israeli Heron and Searcher UAS which are also operating in insurgency prone Jammu and Kashmir to sanitise the border and in remote regions of Ladakh helping incursion management. Indian Navy is covering part of the coastline. Indian Air Force uses them for target lasing, Battle Damage Assessment in addition to ISR functions. In Naxal prone areas UAS are tracking possible movements and also directing security forces to the targets. India is looking at more sophisticated systems like RQ-4 Global hawks that will help it monitor much larger area. Even the numbers have to increase significantly. In the meantime, the Indian Ministry of Defence has issued a global Request for Proposal for procuring 95 mini-unmanned UAS for IAF and Indian Navy. Chinese UCAV designs are aggressively taking shape. WZ-2000 is a long endurance version Global hawk class UAS. Shenyang’s ‘Dark Sword’ is the stealth forward swept wing UCAV of Boeing X-45 class. Developed in Pakistan, ‘Burraq’ (Chinese UCAV design) and ‘Shahpar’ surveillance UAS were inducted late 2013. The Indian DRDO’s UAS ‘Nishant’is tasked with intelligence gathering over enemy territory, reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, damage assessment, ELINT and SIGINT. It has an endurance of around four hours. This 380 kg UAS uses rail-launching and parachute recovery. DRDO is also developing autonomous stealth UCAV for IAF named ‘AURA’. It will be similar in design to Northrop Grumman ‘B-2 Spirit’ flying-wing and capable of releasing missiles and precision bombs. DRDO’s ‘Rustam’ UAS is meant to replace the Israeli ‘Heron’ in all three services one day. UAS have profoundly changed the nature of the battlefield in the 21st century. UAS technology will continue to evolve and become a greater asset. We are at the inflection point. A new chapter on air power history has begun.