The Navy has publicly declared their intent to incorporate significant numbers of UAVs into carrier airwings. Depending on who you listen to, carriers of the near future may include a squadron or two of UAVs on up to entire airwings of UAVs. In addition, UAVs are being looked at for maritime surveillance, electronic warfare, tanking, air superiority, ASW, and any other role that manned aircraft now fill. The general consensus seems to be that UAVs will become significant assets within the next few years and will dominate operations within a decade.
However, there are two related problems with this: cost and reliability.
As the UAVs take on more roles and become more complex their costs will rise sharply. As an example, if we want a UAV that has the range, speed, stealth, payload, networking, etc. of an F-35, the UAV will cost what an F-35 does. The incremental cost of manning an aircraft (the cockpit and life support) is miniscule and is largely offset by the additional datalinks and communications equipment needed for remote control as well as the more complex programming. This is fairly obvious and straightforward.
What’s less apparent to most of us is the current state of reliability of UAVs in general. Data on UAV operations is very difficult to come by but data from the U.S. Air Force Safety Center reveals that a total of 79 General Atomics MQ-1/9 Predator/Reaper fixed-wing UAVs have been destroyed in accidents, with another 21 seriously damaged. The Air Force acquired 248 Predators and 156 Reapers through the end of Fiscal Year 2011 (1). That’s 100 damaged or destroyed UAVs out of 404. I was stunned when I saw that.
What the data doesn’t indicate is the cause of the various incidents. Anecdotally, communications loss seems to be the leading factor.
Back to the earlier point, how are cost and reliability related? As the UAVs become more capable and complex and costs rise, the loss rate is going to quickly become unacceptable. Consider the low side of the cost curve for our F-35-ish UAV example. Losing 100 F-35-ish UAVs at $100M per aircraft for a total of $10B is simply unaffordable.
Consider the losses described above – those occurred in benign electromagnetic environments. What kind of losses would be incurred in a hostile environment with challenged communications?
ComNavOps is on record as being doubtful about the controllability of UAVs in an electromagnetically hostile environment. However, I had been under the impression that operations in benign environments were reasonably reliable. This is an eye-opener.
Now, to be fair, I would assume that communications and control reliability are constantly improving. Nevertheless, this suggests that we are still very far away from reliable control in combat. Much, much further than I had thought. The website dronewars.net lists 73 USAF Predator/Reaper/Global Hawk crashes since 2007 (2).
I’ve been unable to find corresponding Navy UAV data but I was able to document the following incidents in the last few years.
I’ve also found documentation of two BQM-74 drone crashes due to communications loss. The BQM-74 is the drone that just recently crashed into the cruiser
Chancellorsville during a training exercise.
I’m not advocating stopping the development of UAVs, just pointing out that the communications and control issues seem not to be as far along as the military would have us believe. We also need to be cognizant of the cost-reliability relationship. Finally, I’ll repeat: I’m highly dubious about the controllability of UAVs in combat.