War Stories

Flyboys in the Ointment

Does the Pentagon have the Right Stuff on drones?

In its Afghan operations, the U.S. has achieved an unprecedented breakthrough—using unmanned aircraft to destroy enemy targets. (OK, maybe not all of them were enemy targets, but that’s another story.) Almost all the reporting on this portrays it as a brand-new technology. But it’s not. Aviation Week& Space Technology has reported that the U.S. experimented with drones firing missiles and laser-guided bombs as early as the 1960s. One engineer confirmed to me that way back then, in one test he worked on, a U.S. drone successfully launched an attack against a mock-up of a North Vietnamese radar site. I asked him why the U.S. never tried this technology against real North Vietnamese radars, and why it had lain fallow through all the intervening years. His answer: the Pentagon pilots’ union.

That is, for all their advantages, drones have one big disadvantage—they threaten the jobs of the people who run the Air Force and the air branches of the other services. It was, after all, not the Pentagon but the CIA that in Afghanistan finally turned a drone into a strike aircraft.

This is a key issue, because like the appearance in World War II of the first jet fighter, the new U.S. drones could be the start of a revolution in warfare. After decades of serving mostly as targets for gunnery practice and occasionally as battlefield reconnaissance platforms, drones now appear poised to take on the immense variety of combat roles heretofore reserved for things that eat, drink, sleep, and die.

Checking out of the Hanoi Hilton. The most obvious advantage of drones is that using them for the majority of air combat missions would let the U.S. consider more military solutions to international problems on the merits rather than on the domestic political complications of pilot losses and POWs.

Lower cost. Drones don’t need ejection seats, instrument displays, cockpit heating or air conditioning, or canopies—which, given the often conflicting requirements of aerodynamics, visibility, and survivability, can be surprisingly expensive. And cutting out pilots means eliminating the expense of initial flight training (typically several million dollars per aviator) and substantially reducing ongoing training. Drone operators still need flight-related skills but can train almost exclusively in ground simulators. And between wars, the drones themselves can just sit in a box with very little upkeep required. In effect, drones combine the main low-cost feature of missiles—comparative simplicity—with the main low-cost feature of airplanes—reusability.

More maneuverability. Even well-conditioned, frequent-flying tactical pilots can at most tolerate pushes and pulls equal to nine times the force of gravity, but airframes and engines can take more on the order of 20 G’s. So taking the human out of the loop gives you an aircraft with a greatly increased ability to turn, climb, and dive, which means greater battle survivability against missiles and therefore greater probability of mission success.

More speed. A drone’s lower weight and increased G-loading means much higher top speeds: 12-15 times the speed of sound, at least six times as fast as the world’s best manned fighters.

More stealth. The design freedom that comes from being able to eliminate all pilot-supporting systems directly translates into a reduction of radar reflection, one-fourth less than comparable piloted planes, a 1996 Air Force report estimated.

The Pentagon flyboys will no doubt insist that even if the foregoing factors mean they can eventually be replaced in the surveillance and strike missions, they’ll remain essential when it comes to air-to-air combat. But air-to-air combat is steadily diminishing in importance. There was absolutely none of it in Afghanistan or Kosovo. And although a generation ago, planes could avoid missiles with hard turns and flares, since then missiles have become increasingly aerodynamic and discriminating about targets. (The latest version of the top American air-to-air missile, the Sidewinder, has flare-rejection technology.) Therefore with the continuing sophistication of computerized circuitry, there is no reason to think that missiles and hence drones assisted by ground controllers couldn’t continue in this direction and end up mimicking the flying and perceptual skills now displayed only by the dudes in the leather jackets.

Drone-based air forces would still tap plenty of flying skills, but these would be exercised not yanking and banking up in the wild blue yonder, but at 1 G and at Mach 0 in a dark van in a parking lot. You can see why aviators would be upset at the prospect of such a huge net loss in fun and prestige. But you can also see what the right thing to say to the Right Stuffers is: Get with the program—defending the country isn’t about you getting your jollies.

Repeatedly, the history of weapons development has been marked by an annoying motif: technological progress stymied by human stubbornness. The horse cavalry resisted the tank, the infantry generals and the battleship admirals suppressed the development of air power, the air admirals stalled the nuclear submarine, and the bomber pilots tried to do the same to the ballistic missile. Does the present Pentagon leadership have the vision and courage to do better by the combat drone?