We’ve previously discussed that sensors are more important than weapons (see, “Weapons Don’t Matter”). It doesn’t matter what kind of around-the-world range your weapon has if you can’t find a target for it. The challenge, of course, is to get the sensor to a useful location which, almost by definition, means in enemy controlled air/land/water space since that’s where the targets of interest will be. Actually, that’s not the real challenge, is it? Getting the sensors to a useful location is doable. The real challenge is getting them to survive long enough to conduct useful surveillance and transmit the targeting data back to attack units.
Before we go any further, let’s think about what kinds of sensors we’re talking about. The
military’s main means of generating long distance
targeting data is through the use of aviation platforms, both manned (P-8, E-2,
EP-3, AWACS, etc.) and unmanned. The
problem with manned platforms is that they are hideously expensive,
defenseless, non-stealthy, and slow.
That combination of characteristics means that they won’t be risked
penetrating deeply into enemy territory to find the kind of targets we want to
find. A notable exception might be the
F-35. It has the stealth and range to
perform moderately deep penetration targeting.
What it lacks is the kind of wide area sensor coverage that other manned
surveillance platforms have. It’s just
not possible to put that kind of sensor on a fighter sized aircraft. Still, in sufficient numbers, it might prove
useful in that role. None of us know
exactly what kind of wide area search capability the F-35 really has, if
any. The down side to using the F-35 as
a penetrating sensor platform is that every F-35 dedicated to that role is one
less for the crucial air superiority battles that will be going on
Increasingly, therefore, the military’s emphasis is on unmanned platforms (UAVs). There are two problems with using UAVs for deep penetration surveillance and targeting.
- UAVs are quite small in terms of volumetric and weight capacities and just can’t mount the kind of long range, wide area sensors that manned aircraft can. This can be partially offset by the long endurance of UAVs which allows for greater coverage even if the sensor field of view is somewhat limited. This leads us to the second problem.
- UAVs are slow, not particularly stealthy, and not very maneuverable. In short, they’re not survivable in enemy airspace. A sensor that can’t survive long enough to accomplish its surveillance is useless.
So, how can we conduct successful deep penetration surveillance and targeting?
In order to answer that, let’s briefly consider what we can’t do.
- We can’t use P-8’s. They’re large, slow, and non-stealthy. Combine those characteristics with the beacon like nature of their radars and they’re, literally, flying targets waiting to be destroyed long before they can find a target.
- We can’t use large, expensive UAVs because deep penetration surveillance, by definition, will be dangerous and have a high attrition rate for the surveilling aircraft. We simply won’t be able to afford to routinely lose $100M+ UAVs. Heck, we balked at $1M LRLAPs so we certainly aren’t going to buy enough $100M+ UAVs to fill the deep penetration role!
So, what does that leave us?
That leaves smaller, cheap UAVs.
Wait, didn’t we say that small UAVs just can’t carry large enough and powerful enough sensors to effectively conduct wide area surveillance? Yes, we did say that. However, if we use enough low effectiveness UAVs we can cover the desired area even if each individual UAV is only marginally effective. Coverage is provided by numbers rather than individual capability.
Wait, didn’t we also say that UAVs are not survivable? Yes, we did say that. However, if we use enough non-survivable UAVs, a sufficient number will survive to do the job. The enemy has only a limited supply of SAMs, fighter aircraft, and air to air missiles at any given location and point in time. To make the point with a ridiculous example, if we sent 1000 UAVs into an area, the enemy just wouldn’t have enough weapons and aircraft to respond to all of them and even if they did, they wouldn’t have enough time to hunt them all down individually before the survivors accomplished their mission.
Of course, the key to both of the preceding points is that the UAVs must be cheap – cheap enough to flood the area and attain coverage and cheap enough to absorb the expected losses.
Can we build UAVs that are effective enough and cheap enough? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I believe we can if we ruthlessly focus on what the actual requirements are rather than start loading up the UAV with “wishes” that would turn it into a strike/fighter/ISR/refueler aircraft, all in one.
Currently, we have small, cheap UAVs. They are many different “brands” in use. A typical example is the Boeing Insitu Scan Eagle. Scan Eagle is 4.5 ft long with a 10 ft wingspan and weighs 44 lbs. It has a max speed of 82 kts and an endurance of 22 hours. A cruising speed of around 50 kts gives a theoretical range of 1100 nm (radius of 550 nm). The practical range is currently limited by the communications package which is good for only 62 miles. The UAV is launched from a miniature catapult and recovered by a shyhook. Launches can be from vessels as small as a Mk V Special Ops boat. Payloads include EO/IR or a mini-Synthetic Aperture Radar.
According to Wiki, the Royal Australian Navy tested a Scan Eagle with a Sentient Vision Kestrel Maritime ViDAR high resolution digital video camera that is claimed to be able to cover 13,000 square nautical miles over a 12-hour mission (1).
So, with some improvements in communications range, there is no reason why such a UAV could not fill the need for a small, cheap, effective surveillance UAV.
The cost of the Scan Eagle is listed by Wiki as $3.2 million (2006) for a system consisting of four UAVs, a ground control station, remote video terminal, the SuperWedge launch system and Skyhook recovery system (1). Of course, once the control station and other equipment is purchased, additional UAVs can be bought for a fraction of the complete system cost. Aviation Today website lists the cost for the UAV alone as $72,000 (2). Mass production would lower that further.
|Scan Eagle and Catapult|
The next question is how to deploy these small, cheap UAVs. Ideally, they would be carried by a dedicated UAV “carrier”. Such a ship would carry hundreds of UAVs and would accompany every surface group to provide the long range coverage that is needed to effectively utilize the long range anti-ship missiles that are [hopefully] coming to the fleet. A UAV carrier would be a commercial cargo ship suitably modified to conduct high tempo UAV operations. Basically, this just means a small “flight deck” (a row of catapults and some space to move the UAVs) to launch UAVs from and several recovery nets/hooks. Nothing fancy. We can build supertankers for $100M so this should be a $200M effort.
Alternatively, small UAVs can be operated by the dozens from any ship or land bases where geography permits.
The biggest challenge to this approach is reversing the military mindset of “bigger and more complex”. Everything the military builds is bulked up with added gadgets rather than stripped down to minimum essentials.
Our current plan to use a few large and expensive aircraft, both manned and unmanned, for deep penetration surveillance and targeting is unworkable in high end combat. We need a different approach and small, cheap UAVs offers a viable alternative.
(2)Aviation Today website, 2004