RAF Reaper MQ-9

The Future of UAVs

RUSI The Future of UAVs: Concepts and Considerations

Air Vice-Marshal Jon Lamonte

Chief of Staff Strategy, Policy & Plans

AVM Lamonte Introduction

Ladies and Gentleman

It is my great pleasure to give the keynote address at this RUSI conference that will consider ‘The Future of UAVs’. For those who have read my bio, and for the benefit of my pilot colleagues who gloated on the growth of the ‘black box’, I could have subtitled this as the Revenge of the Navigator! It is a subject that is of the utmost relevance. As UAVs prove their indisputable worth saving lives every day in current operations, they are also challenging traditional air power concepts and stimulating necessary debate on how air power might best be delivered in the future.

It is difficult to imagine how any future operation would be conducted without commanders, both in the front line and rear head quarters, having their situational awareness enhanced by 24/7 near real time video feeds. In the past decade UAVs have progressed from minor players in the Intelligence and Situational Awareness, or ISA role to a key part of the allied air campaigns over Iraq and Afghanistan, with single platforms now capable of achieving the entire Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage and Assess kill chain. Their development from providing a Surveillance capability to a system providing Armed ISA, follows a similar path to the evolution of manned aviation over the trenches of World War 1, where aircraft operating over enemy lines providing artillery observation soon began carrying rudimentary bombs to attack positions directly. Early indications are that the parallels between the development of manned and unmanned aircraft will not end there; that the capabilities of UAVs will continue to develop and increasingly play a part in all air power roles.

Air power is not the sole domain of the Royal Air Force, it is also delivered by the organic air assets of the other services, assisted by other nations, supported by national and international civilian and commercial resources; it influences and is influenced by all the operational environments including Space and Cyber Space. I recognise that I am presenting to an audience which covers that whole spectrum of backgrounds. That said, my presentation today is focused largely on the Royal Air Force because UAVs will, I believe, have a larger impact on it than the other services as UAVs will be used to deliver its core function of air power, whilst the other services will use UAVs to better enable them to deliver their Land or Maritime Power.

I will structure this presentation entitled, ‘Here to Stay: The Future of UAVs,’ around the current doctrinal weaknesses of air power to provide insight as to: What it is that makes unmanned aircraft such an attractive proposition; how unmanned air capabilities may develop in the future; what might limit their utility, which is a key element of understanding why a mix of manned and unmanned capabilities may be required for the foreseeable future; and why the introduction of UAVs may require organisational adjustment within the RAF. When I talk today of the foreseeable future I am looking towards 2050 when the question of the right mix of manned and unmanned aircraft as JCA retires from service to meet the Air Domain Capability requirement will be key. I do not profess to have all the answers, but I hope to help stimulate debate over the next 2 days of the conference to ensure we enter this new era of air power with a clearer understanding as to what opportunities UAVs present us, what work is required to best enable their capabilities, and where limits might lie.

Main Body

An RAF Reaper MQ-9 taxis for takeoff at Creech AFB Firstly, however, lets us agree that the delivery of capabilities from ‘unmanned’ aircraft systems, to use the current terminology, is in fact a misnomer as the evidence shows operating unmanned systems is currently a manpower intensive endeavour. In the confines of a UK Reaper Mobile Ground Control System, 3 people conduct the mission; the pilot, Weapon Sensor Operator, and mission coordinator, whilst more personnel at locations in theatre and the UK analyse the information collected. 39 Squadron has a manpower to aircraft ratio greater than that of a traditional fast jet squadron and includes aircrew, engineers, image analysts, intelligence and ops support personnel drawn from all 3 services. Consequently, Unmanned Aircraft Systems as a description is now losing popularity and increasingly seen as an unhelpful. NATO did not adopt it, electing to refer to Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems, and the United States Air Force is now increasingly reverting back to referring to their ‘unmanned’ air capabilities as Remotely Piloted Aircraft. For the purposes of this presentation, however, I will refer to UAVs and ask the audience to bear in mind that delivering their full capability requires a considerable amount of resources besides the platform itself, in both infrastructure and personnel.

Whilst unmanned system terminology maybe unclear, the Royal Air Force’s mission is not. It is to be “an agile, adaptableand capable Air Force that … makes a decisive air power contribution in support of the UK Defence Mission”. By what platform that air power is delivered, whether it is manned or unmanned, is not relevant. The Future Air and Space Operational Concept warns, “there must be no preconceptions about the capability of unmanned systems based on legacy or platform-specific thinking…”

Air Publication 3000 identifies air power strengths as: Speed, Reach, Height, Ubiquity, Agility and Concentration. These are attributes that can being exploited by UAVs in a similar way to manned aircraft. Equally important, however, are the current weaknesses of Air Power: Impermanence because aircraft cannot stay airborne indefinitely; Limited payload when compared with a ship or land vehicle; Fragility of structure making them susceptible to battle damage; Cost in procuring and sustaining aircraft capabilities reliant on cutting edge technology in order to defeat the equally technologically advanced counter air capabilities of opponents; and Basing required to operate from within a practical range of the theatre of operations.

I aim to show that it is the UAVs ability to overcome or mitigate some of these traditional weaknesses of Air Power that makes their development and acquisition so compelling, but as I do so expand where necessary to indicate where their introduction to service could have a range of consequences which must also be considered.

Predator UAV Let me start with Impermanence. UAVs today provide a persistent presence over the theatre of operation. By the end of 2010 the United States Air Force intends to have 50 Predator or Reaper orbits being maintained 24/7 over Iraq and Afghanistan. Such saturation is required due to the area being covered and to mitigate for the relatively limited speed of the current generation of UAVs when compared to a fast jet. However, UAVs currently undergoing flight testing, such as Predator C Avenger, can already operate at speeds in the region of 400 knots and aim to match or better Reaper payloads and endurance.

A single sustainable 24/7 Reaper orbit currently requires 3 air vehicles and 2 ground control stations, but platforms such as Global Hawk can already exceed 36 hrs endurance and other High Altitude Long Endurance, or HALE, platforms under development such as the Global Observer look to expand this endurance to a week. Indeed, the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency’s VULTURE programme is a competition for a HALE platform able to remain over a theatre of operations for 5 years. Such systems offer the possibility in the future of ‘near Space’ capabilities with greater flexibility than that offered by satellites at a reduced cost.

With persistence, however, comes the increased burden of analysing the truly vast amounts of collected product. In order to benefit from the manpower savings highly automated UAVs promise in operating personnel, similar advances in automated analysis, prioritisation and distribution of the product are required to prevent an increased manpower demand overall.

Payload. Payload limitations are generally described in terms of weight, size and number of expendables, such as weapons, that can be carried. Once the payload has been accommodated on board, non kinetic capabilities such as collection and distribution of digital imagery, signals intelligence and communications relay are only limited by the systems’ capability and platform performance. It is the weapon carriage limitation that has the greatest impact on UAVs performing in the Attack role as they can expend all their weapons long before they are required to come off task. With the development of directed energy weaponry becoming an ever more likely reality, however, the combination of a weapon with an ‘inexhaustible magazine’ coupled with the persistence of UAVs that are survivable in a contested battlespace, is expected to transform warfighting by around 2030. Thereafter, UAVs are likely to begin to predominate in the force mix and the traditional air power roles of Intelligence and Situational Awareness and Attack will merge as the same system becomes capable of delivering both roles simultaneously.

Another limitation of payloads is their ability to with stand aerodynamic forces such as airspeed and ‘g’. Whilst UAVs offer the potential to create airframes that can manoeuvre at ‘g’ loadings that no human could endure, to build an aircraft and associated payloads also capable of withstanding such forces would undoubtedly increase costs considerably. Due consideration is therefore required to determine if the degree of survivability attained is necessary or might be achieved through more cost effective means.

As Air Power roles merge the current structure of the RAF will almost certainly be required to adapt as well. If platforms, as they are expected to, become less role specific but increasingly capable of being configured to conduct multiple roles and missions, such as ISA or Attack, or both, the current Group structure of Air Command, that delineates between Combat Air and Operational Support functions may become less useful. Looking wider, across Defence, how the multitude of assets capable of contributing to the ISA role should be better managed is subject to much debate; a debate made more complex when multi-role capabilities are involved.

Predator UAV Whilst a future where UAVs dominate the roles of ISA and Attack, and the subsequent merging of those roles appears inevitable, the complexity and variety of missions required in the role of Control Of The Air in the context of an anticipated future battlespace that is congested, cluttered and contested arguably makes it the most difficult to envisage unmanned aircraft being able to providing the whole solution for some considerable time. The United States Air Force in recognition of this is pursuing a concept where unmanned aircraft work cooperatively with manned ones in this role, describing such UAVs as ‘smart wingmen.’ Indeed, we proved the concept in 2006 in a trial of a jet airliner controlled from a Tornado fighter jet. As a result, whilst much work is required to determine where the balance might lie, a force mix of manned and unmanned combat aircraft in this role appears likely for the foreseeable future, which I consider to be up to around 2050.

UAV development in the role of Mobility and Lift will almost certainly be accelerated when international civilian aviation regulatory bodies agree the standards to be met to allow UAVs to be integrated into national non segregated airspace. Regulations governing airworthiness, software requirements, human factors, control frequency agreements, and technological solutions for ‘Sense and Avoid’ to name a few are required to pave the way for wide spread civilian use of UAVs. Current strategic planning by the civilian aviation sector clearly demonstrates an interest in moving toward unmanned aircraft solutions that can utilise high levels of automation due to the predictable nature of their task and so generate savings in operating costs.

UAVs also offer potential to meet other national security needs and are attracting interest from Other Government Departments. In the United States they have demonstrably enabled more efficient use of resources in patrolling the national borders and tackling wildfires in the western states, and full integration into national airspaces will almost certainly expand the possibilities considerably.

In current theatres, however, the demand to get ‘trucks off the roads’ to minimise the exposure of personnel to the IED threat has already seen the US Marine Corps declare an immediate requirement for a ‘Cargo UAS’ and submit a request for tender to industry for a capability demonstrator. Two contenders are the Hummingbird and K-max rotary wing UAVs. However, whilst the ‘convoy’ of airborne ‘trucks’ concept may reduce the threat to personnel on the ground, in the lower contested airspace within which these UAVs would operate other risks such as vulnerability to anti-aircraft weapons will need to be addressed.

Fragility. UAVs will not be less fragile than manned aircraft and, if considered as a whole system being operated over global distances, it can be argued there are an increased number of points of weakness that could be exploited or subject to failure that increases a UAV systems fragility. Industry will, however, aim to mitigate these weakness, not only through improved performance in terms of height, speed and manoeuvrability, but also by increasing levels of automation, equipping platforms with defensive aids, protecting up and down links, and incorporating low observable technology and characteristics that are not compromised by the platform design limitations imposed by the life support and needs of a carrying a human being.

If platform unit costs can be kept low, higher attrition rates may also be acceptable as the affordability of replacing any losses is increased. There is, however, a trade off to be made as efforts to increase survivability are likely to adversely impact the unit cost and induce a weight and payload penalty, resulting in reduced performance, endurance and capability. UAVs, therefore, are unlikely to overcome this particular weakness of airpower, but they may make it a more bearable.

Reduced cost is an attractive element of UAV solutions. As with any new technology, initial development costs are likely to be high, but studies indicate that unit costs and through life costs across all Defence Lines Of Development, should prove to be greatly reduced.

It is envisaged that unit costs can be kept lower than conventional aircraft as, whilst they will still be required to meet airworthiness standards they can be relatively simple aircraft when compared to traditional platforms, are not required to provide life support to a human and the flight profile for an ISA asset does not usually demand high structural load capability. As ISA and Attack roles merge, however, more aerodynamic performance may be desirable and the potential for cost savings reduced.

Besides unit cost, the financial benefits appear to be focused in 2 areas; personnel, in terms of numbers and operator training, and a reduced peacetime ‘live’ flying requirement.

If the amount of training and the resources required to achieve it can be reduced, considerable savings can be achieved.

The debate regarding how much training the operating crew need to fly their UAV is quite rightly an active one and the answer is dependant on many issues. Trials of bespoke training programmes are ongoing in the UK and US to explore the art of the possible with regard to the level of training operators require for high end systems such as the Predator aircraft. It is also acknowledged that the operation of UAVs such as Desert Hawk 3 requires a different skill set and training needs.

As UAVs are developed with increasing levels of automation it will reduce the requirement for operator training in the more traditional piloting skills of flying the aircraft, such as landing and takeoff, and focus the training more towards operating the payload. Ultimately, in some cases, a single operator may only be required to monitor multiple platforms. Operators will, however, still need to be ‘air aware’ or ‘air

minded’ and able to demonstrate good ‘airmanship’ when making decisions that affect the operation of the UAV. To what degree these skills are required and how they can be taught and learnt in the environment of a UAV Ground Control Station as opposed to the cockpit of an aircraft is yet to be fully understood.

Automation brings with it other issues. We need to decide what level of automation we are comfortable with? When considering air delivered weaponry, how comfortable are we with highly automated systems, unable to apply judgement and pragmatism to a situation, taking actions which could result in loss of human life without ‘man in the loop’ intervention being possible? Do we want to go that far? These are legal and ethical questions which need careful consideration and may bound how UAVs are employed long before they reach their technological limit.

With UAV payload control done wirelessly and in response to digital imagery or commands, there seems little argument against a high proportion of any future UAV training being achievable through simulation, meaning that some portion of platforms procured may remain ‘boxed rounds’, and only used in the event of real operations. Whilst this has cost benefits, what impact does this have on engineering and operational support training and manpower requirements? How do you ‘man the force’ in war-time when the peacetime manpower requirements could be very different? Multi-skilling across platforms may offer a solution, but only if we can be sure that we won’t need those personnel to fulfil their multiple roles simultaneously. How these challenges are to be overcome requires careful thought and planning if we are to make the most efficient use of our available manpower resources, but with the least operational risk.

Reaper Operating aircraft remotely introduces additional operational benefits linked to training and costs. Were a UAV to be lost for any reason over enemy held territory, there is no possibility of captured aircrew being exploited by an opposition for political leverage and, with no loss of trained personnel, sustaining the capability reverts to being a matter of equipment availability and the rate attrition spares can be brought on line.

Where friendly forces are not engaged on the ground, the loss of a UAV does not require resource intensive Joint Personnel Recovery capabilities. At worst another platform may need to locate and destroy any downed air vehicle to prevent enemy exploitation; sometimes referred to as Combat Search and Destruction.

Manpower considerations also introduce the moral component of a fighting force. The old joke of the 1990’s was that the Army would ‘dig in’ on operations, whilst the RAF would ‘check in’ - to their hotels. Current operations have thankfully changed this view, but if we take to conducting air operations at no personal risk from potentially thousands of miles from the theatre, how do we preserve the RAF ethos and warfighter mentality? How will the international community view military forces able to wage war whilst not putting themselves at risk? Will doing so simply force any adversary to greater asymmetry and widen their theatre of operations to include locations supporting the remotely operated air power being used against them, including the homeland, and thus potentially undermine a policies aimed at keeping threats at range?

It is as important to understand these potential second order effects of introducing UAVs as it is to developing the technology to enable UAVs to operate.

Finally, with regard to basing, despite the proven ability to conduct global operations with UAVs such as Global Hawk, to achieve the desired persistence over a given area it will remain desirable, if not essential, to launch the platform from as close to the theatre of operations as possible. Doing so also overcomes the need to negotiate permissions for the overflight of other nations during transit which can be a lengthy process and impact response time. Where long range missions are required, however, the advantage of the UAV over a manned aircraft such as the B2, is the ability to manage the operators fatigue by swapping operators out as many times as is necessary and so extend the art of the possible.


In summary then, it appears that UAVs do offer solutions to many of the traditional airpower weaknesses, and indeed offer further advantages over manned aircraft solutions. As such, there is likely to be an ever increasing and compelling argument to introduce UAVs into the force mix to the greatest extent possible. Despite the financial pressures on defence, from a Royal Air Force perspective, the future’s bright and the future lies in UAVs.

To gain the maximum benefit from UAVs, resources must also be applied to provide the necessary enabling capabilities and not just the platforms themselves. The secondary effects of their introduction and how they are used, on the services, our people, their training and even policy must be considered. Agreement needs to be reached on what is an acceptable level of automation; morally, ethically and legally; as a service, nation and internationally.

Whilst the outcomes of these philosophical debates remain unresolved, manned aircraft will continue to be required to some degree to mitigate the limitations UAVs may be subject to.

To conclude, ladies and gentlemen, I believe we are on the threshold of an era in aviation comparable with, and as exciting as, the introduction of the jet engine. It is note worthy, however, that whilst the Gloucester Meteor entered RAF service in 1944, the Avro Shackleton did not go out of service until 1991. Similarly, the introduction of the first UAVs does not mean the age of a Royal Air Force of entirely unmanned aircraft is here yet, but over time UAVs will progressively become more predominant in the force mix as this latest evolution in Air Power is embraced.

Thank you very much.


Top: Air Vice-Marshal Jon Lamonte

Next: Reaper

Next: Predator

Next: Predator

Next: Reaper

Text size: