Unmanned aerial vehicles are earning star status in the global war on terror, becoming the most-requested capability among combatant commanders in Southwest Asia and increasing fourfold in that theater during the last year alone, according to the deputy director of the Pentagon’s UAV planning task force. UAVs are topping combatant commanders’ wish lists. During the past year alone, UAVs’ numbers in Iraq have jumped from less than 100 to more than 400.
Unmanned Aircraft Gain Starring Role in Terror War
Unmanned aerial vehicles are earning star status in the global war on terror, becoming the most-requested capability among combatant commanders in Southwest Asia and increasing fourfold in that theater during the last year alone, according to the deputy director of the Pentagon’s UAV planning task force.
Dyke Weatherington told the American Forces Press Service UAVs are topping combatant commanders’ wish lists. During the past year alone, UAVs’ numbers in Iraq have jumped from less than 100 to more than 400.
”We’ve seen a huge growth in the total numbers of UAVs in the theater, with most of that growth in the area of small UAVs,” he said. ”There’s a lot of capability over there today, and frankly, the warfighter is asking for more.”
What makes UAVs so valuable, Weatherington said, is their ability to provide eyes in the sky for extended periods of time, beaming real-time images to the ground.
”In the global war on terror, persistence is vitally important,” he said. ”It’s important to deny the enemy sanctuary. And constant surveillance in his backyard, so to speak, prevents him the opportunity to mass assets and forces.”
In the event the enemy does this, UAVs offer an additional capability beyond their traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role, Weatherington said. Now they’re demonstrating a strike capability as well.
The Air Force’s Predator UAV, which earned its stripes flying reconnaissance missions in Bosnia, showcased that capability in Southwest Asia. Predator is credited with taking out one of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants in Afghanistan with a Hellfire missile, and has since been used widely for offensive operations in Iraq.
Although Predator wasn’t initially designed as a strike platform, Weatherington said its ability to provide continual surveillance and respond quickly to on- the-ground threats makes it a valuable asset in the war on terror.
”A UAV with a strike capability can take action very early in that cycle (of enemy activity),” Weatherington said, ”and in many cases, eliminate the threat entirely.”
Even unarmed, Predator and other UAVs can identify targets so other strike platforms, such as AC-130 Spectre gunships, can engage them more quickly and effectively, Weatherington said.
But Predator isn’t the only UAV proving its value in Southwest Asia. Weatherington said the variety of UAV systems in the military inventory ensures that UAV technology is adaptable to the widest range of missions.
In all, the military now has more than a dozen UAV systems in its inventory and is at work on several new ones, including the Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System that will incorporate direct-strike capabilities and a rotary-wing UAV.
On the more immediate horizon, there’s the high-altitude, super-sophisticated Global Hawk being developed for the Air Force to conduct long-term surveillance. At the other end of the spectrum, the Marine Corps’ hand-launched Dragon Eye system already in use in Iraq gives squad- or company-level leaders a snapshot of their operating area, then breaks down into pieces that fit in a backpack.
The Raven, another small, hand-held system in use by the Army, is the most common UAV in Iraq, Weatherington said, with about 250 systems providing real- time, up-to-date, over-the-horizon views over trouble spots. It packs into a transit case that fits into the back of a Humvee.
Another rising star is the Shadow tactical UAV, proving its value in Iraq during improvised-explosive-device sweeps and reconnaissance missions. Weatherington said six Shadow systems in Southwest Asia ”are flying almost continuously.”
Weatherington, whose office coordinates all military UAV initiatives and programs, said there’s no single, one-size-fits-all formula for UAVs. Different systems are more readily adaptable to different missions, providing capabilities from the squad or company level to the division or corps level, to the theater level.
”It’s the integration of all those capabilities that make them advantageous,” he said. ”The integration of those systems is what provides very persistence surveillance capabilities.”
In Iraq, UAVs provide situational awareness for troops guarding garrisons and high-value targets, support mobile troops during scouting missions, and watch over convoy movements, among other missions, Weatherington said.
”They’re a real advantage,” he said. ”If a convoy is going down the road and sees something up ahead that looks unusual, they can literally stop, put one of these things together and launch it, fly down the road and see what’s down there — without endangering the convoy.”
Weatherington said these small UAVs extend the capabilities of ground forces involved in protecting strategic locations. ”You can have a detachment there for protection, but they can’t always service the entire area,” he said. ”So with one of these small UAVs, you can extend their eyes and ears to a much larger area and have a very rapid response if they detect a potential threat.”
Meanwhile, UAVs provide high-altitude surveillance with ”robust capabilities” at the theater level. Weatherington said as many as five Predator systems — all operated from within the United States — continually monitor the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes simultaneously.
Weatherington said UAVs can do what people can’t, or ideally, shouldn’t have to. They’re able to operate at long ranges and don’t tire or lose concentration as a human would over extended periods, particularly when operating in dangerous, high-stress environments.
They’re less expensive to operate than manned platforms. For example, operating Predator costs ”about a quarter of what it costs to operate an F-16 — and it stays up 10 times as long,” Weatherington said.
But perhaps most importantly, they can conduct highly risky missions without risking human lives. ”It affords combatant commanders flexibility in using an asset to conduct a mission that they may not choose to risk a human, manned platform to do,” Weatherington said.
In the long term, Weatherington said he expects to see UAVs and other unmanned systems replace more manned systems, particularly for high-risk or high-threat missions. ”I think we’ll continue to see that evolution,” he said.
But despite their contributions, Weatherington was quick to point out that UAVs ”aren’t a panacea.”
”They can’t do everything for everybody, and we shouldn’t try to make them do everything for everybody,” he said.
Air-to-air combat, for example, is probably best left to the highly skilled pilots trained to operate in what Weatherington called ”a highly dynamic environment.” Similarly, tanker and airlift missions are probably most appropriate for manned aircraft, although Weatherington said the services are eyeing the possibility of ”optional manning” for these aircraft.
In the meantime, Weatherington said UAVs have become ”an extremely valuable asset, in terms of their endurance, their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, their flexibility and their cost.”
”They’ve proven their worth and continue to be a very effective tool for combatant commanders” fighting the global war on terror,” he said.