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UAVs' next challenge: Bad guys shooting back

Need another example of how different the unmanned systems field is from the rest of the defense game? Much of today's big military hardware is effectively at the end of history -- nobody talks about building an advanced new cruiser for the Navy, or a powerful new Army tank, etc. Almost everything in the medium term will "spiral" off existing hardware -- if it gets built at all. But not unmanned aerial vehicles.

Although UAVs came of age in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they did so in a climate of total air superiority, fighting against enemies often just equipped with simple small arms. But if UAVs are to continue to be relevant in "major conflicts," they'll need to be able to deal with three major threats, argued Caitlin Lee of IHS Janes. She listed them on Wednesday at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade show: Tomorrow's UAVs must be able to evade the latest-model surface to air missiles; fifth-generation fighters; and long-range cruise missiles that could target their land bases -- for example, U.S. Air Force bases in South Korea and Japan.

Engineers could develop UAVs that could handle such threats, but the Pentagon has been taking its time doing so, Lee said -- the brass is deeply divided about how much it thinks it can trust unmanned aircraft in crowded, dangerous, complex environments. American commanders might not be able to maintain a positive satellite control link with a UAV sent to attack Iranian nuclear sites, for example, and so they'd need to build one they could trust to do the mission, as well as handle SAMs and red air -- all on its own. Right now, the generals don't have that much trust.

Lee gave the example of the Air Force's new bomber, which service officials want to be optionally manned.  Why add the weight, cost and risk of a human crew to a brand-new, advanced aircraft in the age of unmanned aviation? Because it's still the "age of sail," Lee said, citing the old days when shipbuilders were adding the first steam engines to oceangoing vessels. Those ships still had masts, rigging and sails, just in case their main engines failed. Eventually, though, when designers became confident steam engines were reliable, they discarded the vestigial rope and canvas.

Lee also gave the example of two contemporary Pentagon leaders, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who recently retired as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Schwartz, Lee said, argues the Air Force is not ready to commit to an unmanned bomber, so its new airplane needs to be able to accommodate a human crew. Cartwright, however, argues that the force is ready for an unmanned bomber, and that it could even carry nuclear weapons, if it had to. Until the top DoD leadership resolves these kinds of internal differences over how much to trust autonomous aircraft, it will probably continue to go slow on a new generation of UAVs that can play in contested airspace, Lee argued.

Will it get there eventually? Lee thinks yes: She quoted an Air Force laugh line about whether you'd ever trust Air Force One to be unmanned, and said that 50 years ago, people didn't even trust their train doors to open automatically, or elevators to run on their own. After a few more decades of advances in unmanned aviation, the consensus about what's acceptable and what's safe may change a lot.

There's another, political, element here that Lee's presentation did not address: "Optional manning," as has come into vogue for fixed and rotary wing aircraft, as well as some naval craft, allows Pentagon budgeteers to play a double game as they try to sell their toys up the food chain:

If an F-16 always needs a pilot over its expected service life, you have to budget for training and feeding and caring for a human pilot over all those years. But if you figure an "optionally manned" bomber will only fly 1/3rd of the hours of X service life with a human crew, you can also calculate that you may need fewer humans over that time, which, as we know, could add up to big potential personnel cost "savings" for the Air Force. If, at some point down the road after the aircraft is built, the reality of its use crashes against the rosy projections from when it was being designed -- well, that's somebody else's problem, and besides, you'll be retired by then.

The other factor is that where you might be able to develop a new UAV quickly, in relative terms, an optionally manned bomber will be a good bill-payer for years, requiring all the time, money and effort of a human-operated airplane. Look how long it took, and how much it cost, to develop the B-1 and B-2, and now imagine they have to be able to refuel in mid-air, evade enemies, and prosecute targets -- autonomously.

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