Military & Aerospace

Future of Manned Maritime Air Operations
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Issue Vol. 37.3, Jul-Sep 2022 | Date : 21 Oct , 2022

Debate on Manned vs Unmanned Aircraft

Elon Musk speaking at a US Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in February 2020, remarked that the era of fighter jets was over and the future is in drones. In response, flowed a plethora of articles and comments, some supporting the view and others rejecting. Incidentally, it was not the first time that such a debate on manned vs unmanned aircraft had arisen. Way back in 1964, the then US Secretary for Defence, Robert McNamara in his budget presentation spoke of the need for United States to shift its major reliance to missiles and away from high-performance aircraft raising questions about the future of manned strike aircraft. In Mr. McNamara’s words, “We are approaching an era when it will be increasingly improbable that either side could destroy a sufficiently large portion of the other’s strategic nuclear force, either by surprise or otherwise, to preclude a devastating retaliatory blow. — Clearly, manned bomber forces, even if dispersed and partially on airborne alert, do not fit into this new strategy. — In the longer run, as the Soviet Union increases both the quantity and quality of its surface-to-air missile forces, the vulnerability of manned tactical aircraft will increase, and we probably will have to turn increasingly to surface-to-surface missiles for the tactical offensive capability.” While the focus of his context was on developing nuclear deterrence and enhancing strategic strike capabilities, the speech evoked lots of discussions on manned vs unmanned aircraft.

As air operations plays a significant role in the security of maritime domain, it was but natural for manned vs unmanned debate to enter the maritime arena too. Maritime air operations or air operations undertaken to fulfil maritime objectives, which would include achieving the necessary degree of air control in maritime areas of interest, have over the years evolved in four roles; Reconnaissance, Anti-surface operations, Anti-submarine operations and Fleet Air defence. While the first three operations could be undertaken either by ship borne or shore-based aircraft, Air Defence of the fleet essentially was by carrier-borne aircraft unless the ships were deployed very close to own air bases. Advances in technology have always impacted military operational environment and methodology of deployment of forces, be it on land, sea or in the air and Maritime Air Operations has been no exception. The debate now on is to whether we are likely to see a tectonic shift in the way maritime air operations are executed in that, is it going to be the end of manned aircraft operations at sea?

Maritime Domain and Air Operations

21st century is often spoken of as the century of the seas due to globalization of trade and commerce, bulk of which is by the maritime routes. The resultant interlinking of economies has further raised the relevance of maritime domain. Dwindling resources on land has also enhanced interests in the oceans, with advances in technology providing increased accessibility for more intensive exploitation of maritime resources, be it in fishing, deep sea mining, extraction of oil and gas and other natural resources in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of nations and beyond. The competition for the exploitation of the deep oceans between nations is also likely to challenge the legal conventions of the high seas. There would be increased pressure for keeping sea-lanes free and open, protection of ports, shipping and related infrastructure including deep-sea pipelines.

Apart from regular conventional threats emanating in the maritime arena from Surface, Subsurface or Air, there are unconventional threats or low intensity maritime operations (LIMO)as now termed, most which are trans-national in nature. These include maritime terrorism, piracy, drug and arms trafficking, human smuggling/trafficking,Illegal, Unregulated and Unreportedor IUU fishing, illegal gathering of sensitive seismic and economic data and threats to energy security, economy, environment and religious and ethnic tensions. All of these have the potential for crisis, confrontation and conflict at global and regional levels. Therefore, the maritime strategic environment in the coming decades will witness constant changes, unpredictability, and instability. Needless to say, nations looking to safeguard their maritime interests and security, singly or in cooperation with like minded nations,would need to undertake regular review of methodologies to tackle emerging threats, keeping in view advances in technology.

Constant monitoring of happenings in the maritime domain or gaining Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is important for all dimensions of warfare, for tactical missions, for major strategic operations and campaigns, as well as for simple monitoring of areas of interest. The process of collecting ISR data – Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, is reckoned as a core capability of maritime air operations. Maritime air operations are also vital today for surface warfare both for defensive as well as offensive missions i.e., Maritime Interdiction. Air operations in Subsurface or Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) is considered by many to be the most challenging area. The fourth area of operations would be force protection by using integral as well as shore-based aircraft through surveillance and positioning of Combat Air Patrols (CAP). Force projection is another area of maritime air operations. It could be in support during amphibious operations or by strikes from the sea to influence the battle ashore. Maritime Air Operations therefore have an inseparable role in Sea Control, Sea Denial and Force Projection during conventional operations. It also has an intrinsic role in LIMO through surveillance and interdiction.

Comparison – Manned vs Unmanned Air Operations

Looking at manned vs unmanned air operations, with each passing year, advances in technology and more so in Artificial Intelligence (AI), unmanned aircraft will be able to accomplish more types of missions and offer greater tactical and strategic options. AI offers significant advantages over humans in piloting an aircraft because it is not limited by biology. Air operations or missions had limitations due to the endurance or a finite number of hours a human can remain effective in a cockpit and more so in threat prone areas. Like surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), AI-piloted aircraft could remain on station for much longer than human piloted aircraft and with air-to-air refuelling, possibly for days. But that does not necessarily mean they will completely replace manned aircraft because UAVs require input from a human to complete their mission, especially UAVs designed for strikes. This means that manned aircraft which have the advantage of being able to make decisions more quickly and reliably in environments where radio communications are difficult, will continue to have a role. Until UAVs become capable of operating autonomously in heavily defended airspace, they are likely to be deployed only where the airspace is relatively benign.

If one looks at the development of technology in a linear fashion, it could imply that new technology invalidates old technology absolutely. This kind of logic implies that Musk’s statement must either be true or false, but that fails to capture relevant complexities regarding military technology. As an example, with the advent of tanks and mechanised vehicles it was assumed that horse cavalry will be used in future only for ceremonials. Yet in Afghanistan several decades after horses were deemed obsolete by the world’s leading armies, it was used as the environment favoured soldiers mounted on horses.

It would therefore be prudent to avoid committing to either purely manned or unmanned aircraft. A manned combat aircraft is most suitable for highly contested environments where command-and-control is limited or autonomy is required. An unmanned device scores because it can dispense with crew support systems and increase range and endurance. Further even if it is shot down there is no risk of loss or capture of valuable aircrew. Gradually, as unmanned control systems become more dependable, robust and autonomous, the crew may increasingly be rested and more unmanned missions can be launched.

As of today, United States has the world’s most advanced UAVs and development programmes and their Armed Forces fly hundreds of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, and strike. The Marine Corps has flown unmanned cargo helicopters in Afghanistan and have also decided to look at unmanned future in a big way by designing unmanned ground vehicles that will be central to their new operating concept, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO). It is also well known that US Navy is investing in autonomous surface vessels and unmanned helicopters.

Which brings back the primary question of, “Do we still need manned aircraft”? There has no doubt been tremendous progress in the technologies needed to field sophisticated unmanned aerial systems. Yet, even with advances in technology, computing power, artificial intelligence and communications, we are not even close to achieving the cognitive abilities of well-trained air crew. Even in US with their advanced systems the experts are looking at manned combat aircraft for at least 20-30 years more, perhaps longer. Hence the future of air operations and more so in the maritime arena is not either manned or unmanned, but both. The real question that needs to be addressed is the balance between these two.

UAVs can perform fairly simple missions, often involving pre-programmed manoeuvres supplemented by human operator intervention. The tactics and techniques of one-on-one air-to-air combat and the need for split second decision-making are beyond the capabilities of currently available unmanned systems. The challenges of substituting UAVs for manned platforms are even more complex when high-end conflicts in deep oceans are looked at. Connectivity is a major issue as the demands of current UAV operations can occupy an enormous portion of a network’s available bandwidth. Despite the fact that precision munitions and UAVs are becoming smarter and more flexible, one cannot simply replace manned with unmanned for every mission.

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA),is however one area where unmanned systems could be looked at even now. The longer-endurance and lower-cost UAVs would be an ideal complement to any Navy’s existing human-crewed maritime patrol aircraft. So manned sorties could be launched to examine or interdict inputs given by UAVs. Pairing remotely operated and human-crewed platforms in this way, could deliver more surveillance capability without the need for as many larger aircraft, crew and support personnel.

Another issue that needs examination when choosing between manned and unmanned systems, is the cost factor. Unmanned aircraft, contrary to popular belief, are not necessarily cheap. While the smaller UAVs are reasonably priced, as size and capability increase, the cost shoots up. A single MQ-9 Reaper comes for about $36 million. A typical Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft may cost over $100 million, but comes with a service life of 30 years or more and will be able to autonomously execute a wide variety of missions. In contrast, even the most advanced UAVs currently available can perform only a very limited range of missions and comes with the handicap of a short-service life.

Maritime Air Operations in Indian Scenario

The need for maritime air operations in Indian context was first proposed by KM Panikkar, whose writings analysed the need and feasibility of development of modern India as a Naval power. Observing the changes needed in maritime affairs due to the emergence of air power, he put forth the need for a Naval Air Arm as against merely having an Air Force. Prime Minister Nehru also endorsed similar views and had opined the need for an aircraft carrier as it could provide air cover and control in areas of interest deep into the oceans when deployed.

Looking at the challenges to India’s maritime security, immediate conventional ones are obviously threats from Pakistan and China. Of the two, China’s strategy of looking for bases and diplomatic ties from Africa to Middle East and South Asia and the rapidly expanding PLA Navy makes it a real potent threat in years ahead. But as the Mumbai Blasts of 1993 and the events of 26/11 showed, non-conventional maritime security challenges discussed earlier are equally significant and need constant vigil. Special focus is called for to counter maritime terrorism, drugs and arms trafficking, IUU fishing and threats to environment.

At the global level, India has enunciated a vision of collective maritime security in the 21st century, i.e., the principle of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). This was highlighted by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018, when he called the oceans as the lifeline of global commerce and termed Indo-Pacific as a natural region where India’s engagement across the region will be inclusive, promoting rules-based international order, in which all nations, thrive as equal and sovereign. The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), launched by India is in keeping with these principles where nations undertake cooperative endeavours to create a safe and secure maritime domain. At the commissioning ceremony of INS Visakhapatnam in November 2021, Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh had also highlighted the role of Indian Navy in meeting the challenges from piracy, terrorism, illegal smuggling of arms and narcotics, human trafficking, illegal fishing and damage to the environment in the entire Indo-Pacific region.

In order to safeguard her overall maritime security interests, India would need to enhance net Maritime security not only in her littoral region, but all along the Indo-Pacific region in cooperation with Maritime forces from friendly nations. The key to enhancing maritime security is through Maritime Domain Awareness and as brought out earlier Maritime Air operations has a significant role in surveillance and safeguarding of maritime spaces. The Indian Navy in recent years has expanded its presence and operational reach through ‘mission-based deployments’ involving the deployment of ships and aircraft along critical sea lanes across Indo-Pacific by regular patrols by ships and reconnaissance sorties by aircraft. Once again air operations have a significant role.


Wars are fought by people, but technology has continually changed the way battles are fought. The tools of warfare have changed over time, from sling and stone to arrows, bullets, missiles, and aircraft, but it is still humans doing the fighting. Maritime air operations and more so, the question of manned vs unmanned operations, like most other aspects, are increasingly being affected by the changes in the operational environment and advances in technology. Broadly, UAVs are well suited for long endurance missions of routine nature, while manned missions are still the way ahead for unplanned situations. While UAVs can take on ISR missions, operations in dynamic situations are best handled by manned aircraft. This is so as UAVs lack situational awareness and on the spot decision-making capabilities as of now and are also vulnerable to loss of communications and electronic countermeasures. Many experts still hesitate to give full control to an autonomous UAV and have major apprehensions of giving control to take decisions on shoot to kill. We are therefore likely to see manned combat aircraft for at least next two to three decades. As far as India is concerned, we could look at UAVs for ISR missions in our EEZ and in areas close to a control vessel in deeper oceans. Manned missions would be needed for interdiction and strikes at sea in foreseeable future. But UAVs are here to stay and will grow in numbers and capabilities in the years ahead. Finally, terminology such as “unmanned” conveys the impression that there is no human involvement, but there is always a person involved.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan

was the first Commandant of Indian Navy Academy at Ezhimala.

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