The precursor to modern day Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) flew more than a century ago as the Curtiss-Sperry Flying Bomb manufactured in 1917 – a 230kg empty weight aircraft capable of carrying 450kg of explosives to a range of 80km. Today, in the military space, diverse terminology is used to describe aerial platforms that do not carry a human pilot onboard, are controlled remotely or autonomously and carry lethal or non-lethal payload. These platforms are known by different names such as drones, Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), Unmanned Aircraft (UA) and Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA). In the aftermath of the 9/11 episode, there was a flurry of weaponising endeavours in respect of UAVs, and the term Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) gained popularity. For the purpose of this article, the term UAV is used to generically refer to all of the above.
UAVs were at first considered unique and effective as instruments to counter insurgency and terrorism but technological advances have rendered them more and more versatile. In September last year, Abqaiq and Khurais, two major Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities were attacked with 18 drones and seven cruise missiles respectively; the attacks led to around half of Saudi oil production getting affected and a sudden hike in international oil prices. In January this year, US President Donald Trump authorised the military use of an MQ-9 Reaper for the assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleiman, a Major General in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. During the first half of this year, Turkish drones have proved their worth in Syria and Libya, prompting some analysts to call the successes as heralding a new military doctrine in the world. Some of their emerging attributes have made them politically easier to use than manned, conventional aircraft and also rendered them powerful instruments of waging aerial war without risking expensive combat aircraft and scarce pilots. This article looks at some distinctive features of UAVs that make them valuable operational assets.
Operational Benefits of UAVs
Any evaluation of operational benefits of UAVs willy-nilly acquires a comparative texture between UAVs and manned aircraft. The fact that there is no human being onboard renders them significantly more suitable for the dull (monotonous, tedious Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) duties), dirty (involving operating in NBC type hazardous environment) and dangerous (fraught with very high degree of risk to the platform) categories of tasks. Even the worst case scenario of a UAV getting shot down by hostile action, does not involve fatalities and thus, even a casualty conscious user nation is not inhibited by fear of human loss. Related again to the absence of a pilot onboard is the fact that the design can incorporate very high performance unconstrained by human factors, the ‘g’ forces that human physiology is limited to being prominent amongst them. Life support systems (air conditioning and personal oxygen systems) are not required nor are ejection seats and transparent canopies needed.
Design features contributing to crash survivability also become less stringent requirements, dictated by onboard systems and not by a fragile human being. The cockpit itself is eliminated and hence the shape can be moulded to cater for higher levels of stealth. All these eliminated features offer a trade-off in terms of additional payload by way of cameras, sensors or weapons systems. Conversely, a manned aircraft carrying comparable payload would have to be much bigger, heavier, less manoeuverable, less agile, less stealthy and more vulnerable.
Another benefit of UAVs is that theoretically they can have indefinite endurance – limited only by maintenance needs. Physiological limitations applicable to a human pilot such as fatigue, body ablutions, sleep and rest requirements, short and long term consequences of sitting for too long in one posture, do not impede long mission durations. The related benefits of this are self-evident. UAVs can linger in an area of interest or loiter over or close to a battlefield depending on role, for protracted periods and be available for employment in diverse roles at short notice – thus truly underscoring the flexibility attribute of air power.
Responsiveness is another substantial benefit of UAVs as detection, tracking and engagement can all be tasked to a UAV. In a matter of minutes, the UAV operator sitting hundreds of kilometres away, can analyse the information from the UAV’s onboard sensors and authorise weapon use. If the situation changes, the engagement can be cancelled or shifted to another target or another area at short notice. Moreover, small size and weight and low Radar Cross Section (RCS), low acoustic signals and high altitude envelopes are other operational benefits of UAVs. The cost factor is another persuasive argument in their favour as the cost of UAVs is considerably lower than comparable manned aircraft. An operational benefit accruing from the lower cost is that their loss can be risked more incautiously and hull losses accepted more casually. These benefits have been depicted in some movies and TV series (Netflix serial Fauda is an illustrative one) and viewers can see for themselves the immense enabling capability and potential of UAVs not only against terrorists and insurgents; but in an assortment of roles and tasks.
Operational Roles in the Domain of Warfare
Space does not permit a historical review of the evolution of UAVs nor a detailed examination of their classification by role, size or payload. In the context of war between land armies, UAVs can be used for strike, suppression, destruction of land targets, reconnaissance, surveillance of enemy activity, monitoring of Nuclear, Biological Or Chemical (NBC) contamination, electronic intelligence gathering, target designation and monitoring, location and destruction of land mines and Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) in the battle space. There is also the innovative concept of a loitering munition (like the Israeli FireFly) which can hover around in an area and, at the touch of a switch, be used as a munition or be recalled. In conflicts extending to naval engagements, they are useful for shadowing enemy fleets, decoying missiles by the emission of artificial signatures, electronic intelligence, relaying radio signals, protection of ports from offshore attack, placement and monitoring of sonar buoys and possibly other forms of anti-submarine warfare. Operations from decks and in conjunction with ship-borne weapon systems and aircraft are possible.
Although UAVs exploit the medium of the air to execute their functions, their specific roles in aerial battles can be long-range, high-altitude surveillance, radar system jamming and destruction, electronic intelligence, airfield base security, airfield damage assessment, elimination of unexploded bombs, as decoys for deception against enemy Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and more spectacularly, as unmanned wingmen to combat fighter aircraft. UAVs do not only gather vital intelligence information about targets but are also used to soften the target before the actual launch of the attack. In any event, their capability to carry electronic warfare suites bestows upon them the capability to take on cyber warfare roles as extensions of contending forces reaching out deep into enemy territory or territorial waters. Thus of the five domains of warfare – land, sea, air, cyberspace and space – UAVs are already present tangibly in the first four while in space they have an arguable presence as satellites are unmanned, are increasingly being weaponised, and Anti-satellite (ASAT) platforms are already in experimental stage.
The impact of UAVs has been remarkable due to their characteristic of being usable at far-flung reaches and at short notice, eliminating the traditional build up to a war. Indeed, UAVs are not limited to a defined or localised battlefield; but can be used for missions globally. In a similar vein, these can be used even when there has been no declaration of war. Thus, UAVs have effectually eliminated the distinction between wartime and peacetime as also war zone and peace zone. The fact that these are being operated by a human being sitting far away from their mission area, also introduces an element of de-humanising their use as the remote control means there is a distance between the operator and the target (including other humans) both physically and mentally. The use of UAV strikes outside declared armed conflict zones by the US is a portent of similar use by other state and non-state actors. Some analysts have argued that, due to their non-human nature and the allied lack of inhibition in their use, there may be dents caused on the very concept of deterrence between inimical states. Perhaps, the most terrifying possibility is the use of armed UAVs by non-state actors in non-conflict areas, especially as most UAVs are designed for dual use and their proliferation is impossible to control and hence the corresponding, growing interest in anti-drone technologies.
Peripherally connected to this discussion on UAV use in warfare domains is the emerging trend of targeted killing which can be loosely defined as assassination by use of lethal force with the premeditated intent of killing selected individuals not in the physical custody of the entity targeting them. The concept was initially linked to planned killing of an individual because of his association with a terrorist/militant organisation or group but has evolved into political assassinations. Its legality is under great doubt as using a UAV to target someone far away from a battlefield and posing no imminent and immediate threat to any other person’s life, appears patently unlawful and unethical. At least one academic view avers that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) strikes against specific individuals in essence amount to extrajudicial executions and violations of the victims’ right to life and right to due process under International Human Rights Law (IHRL) as they were perpetrated outside established armed conflicts. Besides, the immediate tactical goal of killing military or political leaders, the use of UAVs for targeted killings also serves the strategic objective of deterrence by way of conveying the intent and capability of the UAV threat.
In February this year, General James Michael Holmes, head of US Air Force (USAF) Air Combat Command reportedly said that the USAF may consider replacing manned fighters with attritable UAVs, such as the XQ-58A Valkyrie, in the next five to eight years as its Lockheed Martin F-16s reached retirement stage. A day later, Elon Musk (of Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Artificial Intelligence (AI) company OpenAI fame) declared to an audience of (USAF fighter pilots, “The fighter jet era has passed,” and went on to pronounce the end of the manned fighter aircraft. The fighter pilots, as can be expected, were not exactly delighted. The rapid refinement in UAV technologies and astonishing developments in AI, amply validated by their use in live missions inspired Elon Musk’s confidence that unmanned aircraft could be used in combat operations. Indeed, since then, in a highly hyped Alpha Dogfight simulated combat demonstration by US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in August this year, an AI-driven synthetic pilot developed by Heron Systems emerged the victor against a human pilot – with both flying F-16s.
Aerial combat looks at a revolutionary future with USAF’s Skyborg programme developing AI systems for its unmanned Valkyrie drones which would enable them to communicate with and operate in tandem with manned F-35 jets. The project is expected to reach fruition in 2023. In Russia too, similar developments are in progress. A new UAV design, the ‘Grom’ (Thunder), created by unmanned aerial systems developer Kronstadt Group, was presented at the Army 2020 Arms Expo in Moscow. The Grom, which is a seven-tonne aircraft, is designed to provide combat support for the Sukhoi Su-35 and Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jets, with its main mission being to help keep manned aircraft and their pilots safe by providing support in the destruction of enemy air defences and in carrying out other combat operations. In an allied development, Agile Condor, a podded, AI-driven targeting computer, has been flight-tested on General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAV as part of a technology demonstration for USAF. Agile Condor is designed to autonomously detect, categorise and track potential targets and is a significant step towards giving various types of UAVs and manned aircraft the capability to autonomously prioritise threats. With China too making significant advances in military AI, future air battles would potentially be dominated by AI-driven UAVs which would have the advantage over manned fighter aircraft in almost every aspect of aerial combat.
The Unmanned Future
Besides being used for targeted killings and as unmanned wingmen, UAVs are already being used in a variety of roles and tasks with their operational capabilities improving significantly by the day. In the all important realm of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), UAVs can almost entirely eliminate manned aerial flights and yet provide continuous coverage of the area of interest to meet strategic and tactical requirements. Their range and endurance coupled with special capabilities like detection of warhead storage and contaminated areas reach out into Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) defence. In a similar vein, their range and endurance also renders them ideal platforms to function as communication nodes and extend the range of existing line of sight communication systems, distend communication to areas masked to satellite service, act as communication relays, improve reception and decrease vulnerability to jamming.
In effect, intra-theatre as well as inter-theatre communication capacity and connectivity could be enhanced significantly by employing UAVs with communication relevant payloads. These attributes of UAVs render them excellent platforms for command and control tasks over hostile territory. Operational logistic support is a useful benefit of UAVs and has been successfully validated in Afghanistan by US Marines using K-MAX unmanned rotary-wing craft. UAVs can also be used for Identification Friend & Foe (IFF) roles to complement onboard capabilities of combat aircraft as also to perform the Forward Air Controller (FAC) role traditionally performed by a vehicle-borne human being in the battle area. In another development, UAV swarm tactics are being refined for overwhelming enemy air defences and other tactical roles.
UCAVs or UAVs carrying ordnance such as missiles, ATGMs, and/or bombs are used for offensive roles, and are also emerging as veritable tools of war in battle space. UCAVs can stay on station over hostile territory for extended periods, seeking, detecting and striking multiple targets in relay with other UCAVs working in rotation; immediate Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) and re-strike capability are possible supplementary tasks. UCAVs can also be used for Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) missions. When armed with air-to-air weapons, UCAVs could be used for aerial combat, interception, sustained Combat Air Patrol (CAP) duties or ambush tasks. It may also be possible in the future to use a large-sized UCAV with an extensive loiter time and carrying Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) to augment manned aircraft and space-based systems in theatre missile defence.
To summarise, UAVs can perform variegated military tasks and also empower their owner states/ entities to carry out global strikes while providing them rapid global mobility and hence global reach at affordable costs compared to manned options. To what extent UAVs will find universal acceptance for all the military roles they are capable of performing, is still an area of uncertainty.
Cost and survivability remain two downsides of UAVs. While the cost of individual UAVs is touted as and actually is far lower than manned aircraft for similar tasks and roles, when associated overhead costs related to pilot or operator training, sensor operators, maintenance, fuel, spare parts and communications are all toted up, the cost of operating UAVs does not appear to be much lower than manned aircraft substitutes. Indeed, one can find the odd academic paper suggesting (nay, averring) that the cost of UAV operations is higher than manned options for similar tasks. This may not be true across the board; but only for the larger, more complex UAVs while, at the other end of the spectrum, a small UAV with no communications and a lone operator piloting it, maintaining it, managing its sensors, launching/ recovering it and transporting it single-handedly. Thus, the acceptability of a UAV needs to be viewed against the backdrop of its system costs.
The other drawback of UAVs is their survivability. While electronic defensive countermeasures run contrary to the philosophy of low cost – not only because of the additional cost, but also the extra all-up-weight added on and hence the extra fuel expended to transport it. The emphasis in UAV design is thus on improving flight survivability through reduced size through miniaturisation/nano technology and stealth whose cost again militates with the low cost premise! Crash survivability is another area to look at as the absence of a human pilot onboard obviates the need for stringent crash survivability parameters. The resultant lower crash survivability is a negative point to notch against UAVs. However, the envisioning of UAVs as attritable, inexpensive options of achieving aerial missions make them objects of desire as operational assets.
Jus ad bellum (which refers to the use of armed force in general amongst states) and Jus in Bello (which regulates the conduct of states engaged in armed conflict) both offer arguments to render the use of UAVs/UCAVs illegal or at least controversial, in most of the current employment scenarios where there is no declared war on. Targeted killings, of course, are stark illustrations; but so are attacks on oil fields et al. However, advances in UAV/UCAV technologies and the cost benefits offered by them are drawing attention of leading militaries.
India’s experience with them has been half-hearted, with indigenous R&D failing to produce noteworthy UAVs and Israeli cooperation making contributions to Indian military inventories; but the cost factor keeping these figures far below those needed. It is time that India carried out objective cost-and-benefit analysis of acquiring substantially more UAVs with specific attention to India’s inimical neighbours, the combat aircraft on Indian Air Force’s inventory and the perceived needs of all three services. The example of Turkey emerging as a noteworthy manufacturer of effective and capable UAVs that are now in great demand after having proven themselves in operations, should be adequate to goad India in that direction.