Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Useless UAVs

There are a large group of people throughout the military Internet community who extol the virtues of UAVs in combat scenarios.  I’m talking now about the use of UAVs as surveillance platforms rather than strike or A2A combat.  Supporters believe that UAVs will cruise for extended periods through contested or enemy held airspace and send back precise intel and targeting data. 

However, ComNavOps has long questioned the value of UAVs in such situations.  UAVs are slow, not particularly stealthy, and lack situational awareness.  In short, they’ll be nothing more than target drones in a contested environment.  We wouldn’t allow enemy UAVs to observe us so why would we think an enemy will allow our UAVs to observe them?

Despite this, the US military seems intent on building a massive force of UAVs.  Just as the military has developed an over-dependence (addiction) on GPS that won’t be available (or only sporadically so) in actual combat, we are also well on our way to developing an over-dependence on UAVs which won’t be available in actual combat.

Are UAVs really that non-survivable?  Is ComNavOps right about that?

Consider all the UAVs that have been lost during operations.  Many have been claimed to have been shot down or “comm’ed” down.  The military has not acknowledged any of those but common sense suggests that many were, indeed, lost to enemy actions of one type or another.  Common sense further suggests that in actual combat against a peer or near-peer UAVs will have a very short lifespan.

Still don’t agree with ComNavOps?  OK, let’s see what the Air Force has to say on the subject, as reported by Defense News website (1).  The report was triggered by news that an MQ-1 Predator was just shot down over Syria.  The loss was confirmed by defense officials but, as usual, the cause was not.  From the article,

“But Air Force officials have long warned that the current generation of remotely piloted aircraft cannot survive airspace that is defended by enemy aircraft and ever-more sophisticated anti-aircraft systems."

The article cites an example demonstrating the severe mismatch between a UAV and even a low level opponent.

"A Predator armed with a Stinger reportedly got into a brief dogfight with an Iraqi plane in 2003 — and lost."

The article goes on,

"... Gen. Mike Hostage, then head of Air Combat Command, was much more serious when he told reporters at the same conference that Predators and Reapers are "useless" in contested airspace ..."

Consider that word: “useless”.  That’s from the Air Force.

" 'Today … I couldn't put [a Predator or Reaper] into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it,' Foreign Policy quoted Hostage as saying on Sept. 19, 2013."

There you have the situation in a nutshell.  UAVs can’t operate in contested airspace without escorts.  Well, if you have to have escorts then you don’t need the UAV since you already have aircraft there.  Further, if you have to allocate several aircraft to operate a single UAV then you haven’t gained anything by operating the UAV.

UAVs are a wonderful peacetime surveillance asset but when the shooting starts they’ll be “useless”.

We need to greatly scale back our developing dependence on surveillance UAVs.  Further, the non-survivability of UAVs strongly suggests that affordability should be the number one characteristic the aircraft since the loss rate will be high.  As long as they’re affordable (meaning expendable), there’s nothing wrong with using large numbers of UAVs to collect what data they can before they’re destroyed.  What we can’t do is become so dependent on their data and presence during peacetime that we’re lost without them during combat.

That Triton/BAMs that will solve all the Navy's surveillance and targeting problems?  Don't count on it!

(1) Defense News, "Predator UAV lost over Syria", Jeff Schogol, March 17, 2015,


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I can lead you to the water of reality but I can't make you drink.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Perhaps Gen. Hostage is unaware of your thoughts!

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. I've lead you to the water. That's all I can do. You can drink the water or the Kool-aid. It's your choice.

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. "There's a big difference in survivability between MQ-1 and RQ-180. "

      This post deals with UAVs that currently exist or are known to be under development. We can speculate about UAVs that may or may not exist or might be developed in the future but the reality, at the moment, is that UAVs are useless in combat.

      Might we someday develop a magical, totally invisible UAV with infinite range, all-seeing sensors, and only costs $1? Sure, and when that day comes I'll gladly revise my post!

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    9. Ironic you bring up RQ-170 and calling it survivable in modern contested airspace , when it's already can be detected , tracked and hacked by Iranian military..

      i think the naive tendency of some people (thinking that high tech toys will won the war) should be curbed , as comnav said , lead to the water (and forced to drink : my addition)

  2. It depends.


    Survivable in what context.

    A "Stealth" remotely piloted aircraft is a contradiction in terms, either its stealthy, or its screaming flight data to the remote pilot.

    Theres no reason a remote piloted aircraft cant outfight a piloted aircraft, no pesky human G-Load limits.

    Predators and the like are probably of questionable cost effectiveness in a "hot war", although dont underestimate the use of sacrificing them.

    Personally, I see the UAV future as this.
    Fly THOUSANDS of them, cheap, disposable.
    They are launched, they fly a preset path with a selection of cameras underneath, and return to "base".
    The Camera footage is downloaded, stitched together, and you have a comprehensive view of the battle space thats only a few hours old.

    Few enemies will have the capability to shoot down ten thousand drones, and shooting down just the ones who might see something you want to keep hidden is just a great way of pointing out where your secret base is

  3. B.smitty is right.
    There are UAV for different missions , no one would send MQ-1 and MQ-9s into an active air defense, that lesson was learned over Serbia a long time .

    However consider this the UK and France are developing two Stealthy UAV technological demonstrators right now.. and that in Europe!
    With all the tight military budgets in Europe this programs receive some major funding.

    One of the primary design goals for the Neuron seems to be this:

    Designed to attack relocatable targets, such as “double-digit” air defense systems and mobile ballistic missiles Neuron can autonomously transmit imagery to an operator on the ground who can then clear the vehicle to return and strike.

    And for Taranis :

    Taranis unmanned combat air system demonstrator is designed to defeat new counter-stealth radars, and may use thrust vectoring as a primary means of flight control and an innovative high-precision, passive navigation and guidance system

    Now what really gets me wondering is what similar but classified similar systems are flying in the states.

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  5. And then there's the incident involving an RQ-170, a state of the art stealth reconnaissance drone which was on a mission over Iran. It seems the Iranians managed to hack into the communications and flight control systems and bring it in to an Iranian air force base for a soft landing. The Iranians were apparently also able to decrypt the data from the planes surveillance systems. The RQ-170 incident brings up another key vulnerability of UAV’s, namely their susceptibility to hacking, jamming and other forms of electronic warfare, whereas a piloted aircraft can still operate so long as the pilot isn’t overly dependent on GPS, datalinks and other external electronic systems.

    1. RQ-170 was not designed with the most modern Stealth tech exactly for the possibility of it being shot down, its Stealth tech is like F-117.

    2. "RQ-170 was not designed with the most modern Stealth tech exactly for the possibility of it being shot down, its Stealth tech is like F-117."

      Does that include the secure communications then?

      And, is there an answer to TrT's post? How does something stay stealth while its broadcasting information?

    3. "And, is there an answer to TrT's post? How does something stay stealth while its broadcasting information?"

      None of us know and anyone who knows, isn't talking about it. We're left to speculate. The military spends money and time on developing secure comms but how successful and effective is that? We don't know. Given the number of operational UAVs that have been lost, I suspect that our comms are a significant weak link.

    4. Well, exactly with the RQ-170 loss over Iran, no one knows exactly what happened.
      What if it was flying an preplanned route to record, and not emit at all, suffered some kind of failure and glided to the ground.
      But the Iranians claiming that they've hacked it is ridiculous.

      There are several fail safe's in the programs of UAVs if they loose connection , one of them is to return to base automatically if they loose connection.

      P.S. Is there actually any official number over how many MQ1s and 9s per sortie ratio have been lost?

    5. Please do not think that these systems or the generated mission plans are that good.

      Read this article from 2010 and not the part about "re-establish communications to get it to return..."

      These systems are NOT test rigorously (like all others we are buying).

    6. this is exactly what's dangerous about american perception of their technological wunderwaffe.. their incapability to believe that iranian military (or any other military in the world) can defeat america's wunderwaffe..

      the same thing happened to americans when they are facing Zero fighters.. Overconfidence borned of arrogance and ignorance will kill people..

      the tendency to laugh at other nation's capability is inheritently dangerous...

      as for RQ170 , it's stealth shaping are way better than MANNED stealth since they dont have to implement cockpit.. but unless it is fully AI controlled , you need some datalinks (satellite) that can be spoofed .. there goes your high tech wonder weapon... soft landing on enemy soil..

  6. Great topic it needs objective data to evaluate the pros and cons. I am very leery of using data provided by a General in a Service that wants to buy $100+M airplanes.

    Where is the objective 3rd party? Has OT&E issued any reports on UAV survivability?

  7. No expert, but the Switchblade UAV is a fascinating concept. Imagine if instead if using Tomahawks, we used larger Switchblades - we would not need accurate target location, just the general area, and we could send them to hunt their targets. Survivability has not been a problem for Tomahawks, just for UAVs that hang over a target.
    In my mind, this is where UAVs would be most useful as well as the cheap ISR roles of today.

  8. Taranis is quite interesting. It remains stealthy and deals with high EM environment by only comm’ing for confirmation to fire, in a blip transmission via Skynet (UK military saterlite constallation). Its autonomous. And we recently got its mission profile

    “agreed on five primary mission sets, including suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD), airfield attack, strategic strike, air interdiction in a contested environment and armed reconnaissance. Secondary missions could include anti-ship, close air support and defensive counter-air measures.”

    So quite a different animal.

    Having said that, I think clearly most UAV’s, many of which are little more than artillary spotters are not for day 1 warfare. I don’t think this is really a major surprise tho ? its only like saying you cant reliably operate most land forces and helos in a contested air environment.
    Does anybody think opening up any kind of surface warfare without air superiority is a good idea ?

    Yes you can do it, but you would expect “issues”


    1. Ben, you may be missing the point of the post. The point was not the survivability of any given UAV. The point was that we're developing a dependence (an addiction) on UAVs (for surveillance, targeting, and light strike) that won't be available in combat. We're developing tactics and operational habits that depend on UAVs that won't be available in combat. It's just like our dependence on GPS that won't be available in combat against a peer.

      Sure, if we have a conflict with a third world, bottom tier opponent then our UAVs will be quite useful but that's not who our military should be structuring themselves to fight.

      Is there a UAV out there (or under development) that is stealthy enough for contested combat ops? Perhaps. If so, that's the one we should be acquiring and training with. Of course, such a UAV probably costs LOTS more than a simpler one and we need to factor the cost and resulting expendability (or not) into our tactics and operational plans.

      Also, remember that "day one" can stretch for a long, long time. Relative to a defenseless UAV, "day one" may last for the entire conflict since it takes very little to shoot down a UAV (recall the Soviets experience trying to operate helos in Afg against tribesmen with Stingers and RPGs).

      As an aside, reading through that list of missions for the UAV, I noted that just about every mission except moon landing was included. That's the kind of do-everything thinking that leads to runaway costs!

    2. I like the GPS analogy. Good point. I suspect you are right in that having not tried to operate in anything like a peer environment for so long, a lot of predators are going to go bye-bye.

      Obviously we are shifting to multi mode guidance now as fast as we can. I seem to remember a concept of drones being "throw away", whatever happened to that ?

      This is obviously just eye candy, but here is a Mig with a Georgian UAV and the predictable conclusion.

      Quite a nice short range missile shot, just in case anybody thought the Russians were "off their game." And quite an interesting point of view !


      P.S. I suspect the Taranis missions have come from the Typhoon and the price tag similarly, I think the project was at about £384 million off the top of my head, which for us is a lot for one plane.

  9. P.S.

    Com Nav you forgot to post the coolest UAV shot down in this topic :


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