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
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. US
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
. The loss was confirmed by defense officials but, as usual, the cause was not. From the article, Syria
“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
", Jeff Schogol, Syria March 17, 2015,