Saturday, February 22, 2014

Throwaway UAV

ComNavOps had a discussion with regular reader B.Smitty in the offensive Navy post (see, The Best Defense Is A Good Offense) which concerned my proposal for a simple, affordable, throwaway UAV.  B.Smitty asked for more information and, due to the space limitations in the comments, I’m placing the answer here, as a post.  While this post is a response to B.Smitty’s inquiry, the post is not, by any means, an attack on him.  Quite the opposite.  His questions inspired the idea for this post and I thank him!  He also provided a fascinating link that I’ve copied and will refer to.

Briefly put, I see a need for an attack capability between the 1000 nm Tomahawk and the short range Hornet, especially for riskier missions.

Hopefully, we’ll develop a longer ranged Tomahawk replacement as well as Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles so that would cover the very long range, high risk, heavy hitting, deep penetration strike mission.  Carrier aircraft can cover the shorter range, less risky missions.  That leaves the 300 nm – 1000 nm range, higher risk missions that don’t warrant a costly Tomahawk/IRBM or need a degree of man-in-the-loop control that a UAV offers.

Let’s suppose we want to attack shipping in a harbor (Tomahawks can hit the fixed facilities) but not indiscriminately.  We want to arrive at the target and evaluate what’s there:  civilian/military, moving/docked, ready/refitting, or whatever other criteria.  We need the ability for a man-in-the-loop to make an assessment before committing to the attack but the target is outside the effective range of carrier strike aircraft and/or is too risky.  We need an affordable, throwaway UAV that we’re willing to lose to accomplish the mission.

The same concept applies to a fluid battlefield where legitimate targets are mixed in with off-limits targets.

Well, wait a minute.  We have, and continue to develop, strike UAVs.  Why does ComNavOps think we need yet another?  The answer is simple.  The UAVs we have or are developing as strike platforms are, or will be, far too expensive to use as throwaways.  We’re developing the UAVs because we see a set of targets and scenarios that are too dangerous to risk manned aircraft.  Everyone wants to trumpet the ability to send UAVs on deep penetration, high risk missions. Well, that's a great use for them but what no one appreciates is that, by definition, most of them won't come back.  At a hundred millions dollars or so per UAV, we won't be able (or willing) to throw them away and we won't have many even if we were willing to expend them. 

If you think the cost is wrong and that long range strike UAVs will be cheap, consider what a manned aircraft would cost for the same capability.  A thousand mile combat range, stealth, strike fighter would cost $200M or so.  Look at what the much shorter range F-35 costs.  A strike UAV would cost exactly the same, less the pilot support costs which isn’t much and is offset by adding in the remote control equipment.

We need to rethink our approach to UAVs. Right now, when the Navy starts a UAV design, it starts with complex, sophisticated, and multi-functional requirements. Well, bang, there goes affordable before the first design sketch is made. We need to start with simple and affordable as our initial criteria. No bells and whistles, just a single purpose executed as simply as possible. The Scan Eagle is an example of a simple but useful UAV. Of course I understand that a Scan Eagle can't carry a 2000 lb bomb over a thousand miles!  It just illustrates the concept of simple and basic functionality.

We need a simple, basic UAV that isn't designed with complex stealth, state of the art sensors, sophisticated countermeasures, high performance, a 50 year lifespan, etc. Just a simple long range engine with a basic guidance/sensor package sufficient to get it from point A to point B.

Is this technically achievable? I don't see why not but who knows. The point is that we've never tried this approach. Instead, we want to build ultra-sophisticated aircraft that can't help but cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Throwaway UAV?

Hey, what about survivability?  If we build a simple UAV it won’t survive to reach its target.  Well, survivability takes many forms. One is ultra-stealth. Another is sophisticated countermeasures. Yet another is super/hyper sonic speed. Or ultra-maneuverability. These are the survivability forms that the Navy is pursuing.

Survivability can also take simpler forms. Flying at literally wavetop heights makes an aircraft very hard to detect or engage. So what if some crash into the sea if we can build them cheap enough. Numbers is a form of survivability, too. Launching a thousand (to use a ridiculous number to make a point) simple UAVs at a target guarantees some will get through to accomplish the mission.

Enough background.  Here’s the requirements that I see for a simple, affordable, throwaway UAV.

Range:  600 nm with recovery (in true throwaway mode that’s 1200 nm)
Speed:  Mid to High Subsonic
Payload:  1000 lbs
Stealth:  Moderate (shaped body only – no coatings or other extraordinary measures)

The UAV would be cheap enough to be throwaway but designed for recovery if they do survive.  Bear in mind, though, that recovery doesn’t have to be a carrier recovery.  It can be diversion to a land base, drop in the sea near a recovery ship, barrier arrestment on the launching ship, or some other non-sophisticated means.
How would these UAVs be operated?  Being cheap, I would envision these to be readily available in large numbers and launched from converted commercial cargo ships via a simple catapult.  The ship would basically be a UAV carrier with hangar/storage space and control stations for the remote pilots.

B.Smitty provided a link to an interesting starting point for such a UAV, the Low Cost Autonomous Attack System that was investigated and dropped.  A suitably modified and scaled up version might be in the ballpark of what’s needed.

As far as cost, I would like to believe we could build such a UAV for $100K - $500K each.  Can we?  Who knows? 

So, there you have it.  A simple, affordable fairly long range strike UAV that is cheap enough to build in large numbers and, when necessary, used as a throwaway platform to accomplish the mission.


  1. If these are going into risky environments, won't the remote control be jammed? Look at how the Iranians stole that RQ-170. Just an example, I'm not saying countermeasures haven't progressed (or even basic common sense in this example), but so have the abilities of competitors. It seems like one would need eyes on the ground, or eyes in the air, with the ability to communicate with the UAV from a relatively short distance away as opposed to a direct connect with the launching vessel. Perhaps hand-off along the way so various observers can take control of the UAV as jamming becomes untenable over longer distances.

    1. JI, you're quite right. Communications is the Achilles Heel of UAVs and I think the military is overestimating their ability to maintain control in a contested electromagnetic environment. That said, I'm simply making the assumption that whatever method the military thinks will work will be applied to my proposal, as well. If it turns out that no UAV can be reliably controlled beyond short range line of sight then neither the military's UAVs nor mine will work. Consider, though, that the military is betting heavily on UAVs so they obvioiusly think they can handle the long range control. Of course, they've been wrong before!

      Good comment!


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