ComNavOps is disgusted and repulsed by unsubstantiated statements that are presented as blanket truisms, especially when spouted by uniformed military professionals. The common and most disturbing one, currently, is that the future of warfare is unmanned. I just read yet another article that laid out that suspect premise with absolutely no logical or factual support and then leapfrogged into the author’s pet idea of transforming the entire fleet into a giant UxV operation with no further thought.
Are UxV’s really the future of warfare? Everyone seems to think so but there is no evidence to support that view. Indeed, the new offset strategy being promoted by Mr. Work is heavily based on UxVs. Now, admittedly, anytime a new idea presents itself, there is a dearth of evidence to support the new concept - understandable, since the concept hasn’t yet been implemented. However, the concept can be logically evaluated through wargames, scale models, small scale trials, and simulated performance by surrogates. If the experiments and tests warrant, the new idea can then be implemented in a carefully managed, phased approach so that we don’t forfeit our current capabilities on a shiny new toy that may not pan out in the real world.
What we can’t do is instantly and totally commit to a new idea that is unproven or, worse, may demonstrate weaknesses that are glossed over because they don’t support the new idea. Witness the LCS fiasco – a complete and total leap into a brand new concept with absolutely no evidence that it would work – and it didn’t.
All right, let’s look at UxVs.
To refresh, on the plus side,
- Reduced risk for the operator.
- Endurance – UxVs are not limited by human endurance and have already proven well suited to long endurance surveillance missions with the caveat of mean time between failures which currently is typically a matter of hours, not days.
On the minus side,
- Communications, both control and data, are a major weak link. Many UAVs have been lost to failed comms both as a result of deliberate enemy action and simple technology failure. UUVs are notorious for wandering off during exercises, never to be seen again.
- Situational awareness – Anyone who has flown real aircraft and simulators will attest to the fact that situational awareness is greatly reduced in a simulator/controller. While this may not be critical for simple surveillance missions it will be for unmanned combat. The air-to-air (or sea-to-sea) combat advantage currently lies overwhelmingly with manned platforms.
Neutral factors include,
- Cost – while many suggest that UxV production costs should be less, the reality is that UxV costs are the same as the corresponding manned versions and, often, greater. Logically, the costs should be about the same for the same capability. The incremental cost of manning is relatively small and generally offset by the increased costs of communications and automation. At the moment, there is no evidence or logic to support claims of cost savings.
That’s a cursory look at some individual factors that go into the evaluation of UxV applications. Now, let’s try a little logical thought exercise on a more holistic basis. Let’s look at a “typical” UAV mission as envisioned by proponents.
Specifically, let’s consider a deep penetration UAV strike into a heavily defended area against a peer enemy. We’d have, perhaps, two dozen aircraft attacking a target, say, 300 nm overland and launched from a carrier 1000 nm away. Each UAV would carry two guided bombs or moderately short range missiles of some sort. There would be no electronic warfare (EW) support although we could theorize such but an EW UAV would broadcast its location and would be a magnet for enemy attack and would not last long. The UAVs would be mid subsonic, at best.
How would such a strike fare?
The aircraft would be slow, only moderately stealthy, with poor situational awareness and probable communication/control lags (remember, in combat a lag of just a second is likely fatal). They would have to penetrate several hundred miles of enemy aircraft, sensors, and SAMs with no EW assistance. How many are going to make it to the target? Not many. How many are going to successfully strike and survive the return flight to be available for the next mission? Even fewer.
Is that the kind of result that justifies a total conversion of the fleet to unmanned platforms as the CSBA offset strategy advocates? I’m not seeing it.
UxVs have a niche role to play, for sure, but not a dominant one. They simply don’t have the capability to be successful, at least not at the cost point we seem to be facing. Now, if we could build a long range, penetrating UAV for $1M each instead of $190M each, we might be able to change tactics and conduct strikes with massive numbers so that some aircraft are assured of getting through.
The UUV situation is even more unproven with nothing but vague ideas being substituted for rigorous engineering and tactical evaluations. Again, hardly the basis for an immediate remake of the fleet.
Unmanned supporters will likely grudgingly acknowledge that we don’t have the full technology yet but someday we will and therefore we need to begin the fleet’s transformation now. Well, fine, then someday when the technology proves itself we can re-evaluate and, if warranted, modify the fleet. In the meantime, converting the fleet structure to feature UxVs is akin to having removed all the masts from all the ships in the sailing navy because someone thought steam engines would someday be superior. In the meantime, though, the hulls would float uselessly, unable to move, while hoping that someday an engine would come along that would allow them to move.
Simple thought exercises show that UxVs not only do not have any magic properties but that they have some significant weaknesses as combat platforms. So, let’s continue to develop UxVs but let’s not bet the fleet on an unproven theory that has thus far demonstrated severe limitations. The CSBA offset strategy needs to be halted in its tracks until we have enough operational experience to be able to pass a reasoned judgment. Until then, it’s folly.