June 1, 2011  

The unmanned future

For remotely piloted aircraft, current wars are the beginning of an era

We recently saw the 20th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm and, in a few months, will mark the 10th anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom. Over those two decades, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) have matured and significantly increased the capabilities and effectiveness that can be applied to such contingency operations.

With the nominal 12-hour limitation on a human in the cockpit removed, the potential of RPA to range great distances and maintain sensors and precision weapons over an area of interest for longer periods of time created a powerful tool. That capability provided unprecedented situational awareness at all levels of command; it condensed the “find, fix, finish” equation from tens of hours in Desert Storm to single-digit minutes in Operation Enduring Freedom.

As we entered 2011, the Predator had logged more than 800,000 hours; its younger cousin, the Reaper, more than 120,000 hours; and the Global Hawk, more than 35,000 hours.

Airmen operating these unmanned aircraft have provided a sustained, persistent presence in the battle space to the great benefit of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines operating in that battle space, and to other levels in the national security architecture. They provide their greatest value when they are integrated as a cohesive element of joint and combined operations. It took 600 hours of Predator ISR data to enable a pair of F-16s to target Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida leader in Iraq, in a six-minute airstrike.

The RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 30 recently completed its initial operational test and evaluation, and was immediately thrust into operational missions. In the Pacific, new Block 30 Global Hawks helped with the Japanese disaster relief efforts, flying many sorties in the post-earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor crisis. Meanwhile, Block 30s stationed in Europe conducted ISR missions critical to operations over Libya.

The Block 10 Global Hawk has been operating in U.S. Central Command since 2001, enabling a 24/7 ISR presence at ranges of more than 1,500 miles from its operating base. Alternatively, it can maintain a six-hour orbit at ranges in excess of 4,000 miles. Put another way, an RQ-4 launching from a Mediterranean base could fly to the southernmost tip of Africa, monitor an event for six hours and return to its launch base. Or, it could take off from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., be over the Korean peninsula 18 hours later, maintain its presence there for eight hours and then land at its Pacific base. That’s global reach.

The MQ-9 Reaper — using the Gorgon Stare imaging system — is already transitioning from a single full-motion sensor capability to a capability to host 10 separate direct video downlinks, and 65 total motion video views over a wide area after a bit of processing.

The Global Hawk family will soon have a Block 40 version that brings an actively scanned electronic array radar that can provide wide area search and track of mounted and dismounted forces, plus complex imagery of a variety of target areas.

On March 11, airmen flying Predators, Reapers and Global Hawk aircraft logged more than 1 million combat hours. Within the next year, these fixed-wing remotely piloted aircraft will be joined by lighter-than-air aircraft specifically designed for ISR missions yielding even greater persistence with systems such as the Long Endurance Multi Intelligence Vehicle and the Blue Devil II airship.

Unmanned aircraft clearly have a critical role in the future. Almost 100 years ago, on Nov. 1, 1911, an Italian pilot in a monoplane dropped grenades on a Turkish camp in Libya in what is credited to be the first aerial bombing. Today, we are at about the same stage with unmanned aircraft as we were then with manned aircraft. That portends a future with untold opportunities to continue to exploit the advantages of persistence and perspective through remotely piloted operations in the air domain. Capitalizing on these opportunities will provide the U.S. an asymmetric advantage that is vital to the execution of its national security interests.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula (ret.) was the first Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR and is the CEO of MAV6 LLC.