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Fleet of the Future

Conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine proved the usefulness of drones in the army. It seems that their importance on the modern battlefield will continue to grow.

In the USA, the country with the biggest number of unmanned aerial systems in the world, it is said that the last fighter pilot has already been born. Does that mean that in some time manned combat aviation will be replaced with remote-controlled machines? It is not as simple as that. Some experts are of the opinion that manned aviation cannot be entirely eliminated. However, the scope in which UAVs are used is certainly getting wider.

To Give a Thing a Proper Name

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or simply a drone – which of these names is more adequate? “There are several names used, especially in the media. Of course, the second option is more widely used, both in the military and among civilians. I think that the most adequate name is »unmanned aerial system.« The word »system« is essential here, because it suggests that there are many elements that together create a whole,” explains Col Tadeusz Zieliński, PhD, the vice-president for scientific matters at the War Studies University (WSU). He emphasizes that the aerial vehicle itself (the drone) is just a part of it. “The International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO] uses the term »remote-controlled aerial systems.« This name emphasizes that the unmanned machine, i.e. the remote-controlled aerial vehicle, always has to be controlled by people,” explains Col Zieliński. A different aspect is pointed out by Col (Pil) Władysław Leśnikowski, PhD, an assistant professor at the WSU’s Civil Aviation Management Department, the first Polish officer working in a special NATO group dealing with classification of drones. In his opinion, the nomenclature-related chaos also results from the fact that next to Polish names, there are often English ones, including the popular acronyms:  UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle), or RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft). In the meantime, the terminology is undergoing dynamic changes. As Col Zieliński points out, some time ago the American Air Force replaced the name “unmanned aerial vehicle or system” with “remote-controlled aerial system or vehicle.” It is said that American authorities were not able to explain to their tax-payers that an unmanned vehicle is in fact not unmanned, and controlling it sometimes requires more personnel than a typical aircraft.

Conflicts in the Persian Gulf region, Iraq, and later Afghanistan, proved how useful UAVs are. According to data disclosed by the US Air Force between 2002–2008, the number of drones in the US Army grew from 167 to 6,000, and the number of flying hours doubled (from 200,000 to 400,000) between 2007–2008. “The need for UAVs emerged during low-intensity conflicts (LIC) or military operations other than war (MOOTW), not during typical wars. In fact, we only started appreciating drones in Afghanistan, when it turned out that advanced armament systems were not enough to fight the terrorists. Militants systematically inflicted damage on the coalition forces, but they were very hard to detect and find. That’s why UAVs started to be used on a mass scale,” justifies Col Tadeusz Zieliński.

They also played a significant part during conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. The machines used there were not, however, big UAVs, such as the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper type, but small, commercial devices adapted to military needs and tasks. “Small UAVs won’t attack big targets or critical infrastructure elements, but I still consider them a huge threat. Such machines are perfect for supporting small ground-based troops. There are reports that many Russian aircraft were destroyed at an airport in Syria thanks to a well-coordinated mass attack of small drones. There was a similar situation in Ukraine, where incendiary grenades were attached to such small machines with a view to destroying, for example, Ukrainian forces’ ammo dumps,” remarks Col Zieliński.

One Step Further

In the future, drones might become even more important. It is already known that they will be capable of executing new tasks. One of the development trends is the cooperation of manned and unmanned aviation. “These two types of machines with complement one another. Obviously, some missions will always be executed by pilots, but in certain cases it is better to send a UAV. It minimizes the threat to an aircraft crew, since the drone will take on the most dangerous missions and maneuvers,” emphasizes Col Zieliński. One of such situations is, for example, countering enemy air defense. “UAVs are also used to replace manned machines every time the crews’ lives are at stake, or where there is massive firepower used, like during Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) operations, or in case of monotonous and long-lasting missions,” adds Col Leśnikowski.

Work is already ongoing on projects where manned fighters are to closely cooperate with drones. In the spring 2019, Americans test-flew an unmanned technology demonstrator, the XQ-58A Valkyrie, within the Loyal Wingman project. The machine is to cooperate with the F-22 or the F-35 fifth-generation fighters. Adjusted for intelligence, observation and scouting missions, it looks like a slim fighter without a cockpit. “While executing tasks, a pilot must react to many signals and analyze incoming information quickly and at high g-force loads. An unmanned wingman might be of assistance. This is the future of aviation,” emphasizes Col Zieliński.

Gremlin It!

Another developed concept connected with applying drones on a battlefield focuses on using them in great numbers, creating so-called swarms. When using a swarm, coordination is of utmost importance. Therefore, technologies are being developed to create a network of many interconnected drones that would execute one task together. Tests on coordinating drones in flight are conducted mainly by Americans, but also other nations, such as the Chinese. For several years now, drone swarms have been used commercially to organize spectacular shows. During the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony, a fully-automated synchronic flight of over 1,200 drones was presented. Shining brightly, they created animated figures in the night sky. This way of controlling drones is very promising, so it is no wonder that combat applications of drone swarms are also very intensively tested.

An interesting example is an American program that began several years ago, called  LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology), which provides for deploying a group of micro UAVs (Perdix) from easy to transport tube-based launchers. Fired drones fly autonomously and communicate with one another, which enables them to execute a mission together as a group. While observing a given territory, they are capable of transmitting images taken from many different perspectives, thus providing more comprehensive and detailed information than just one UAV. Initially, Perdixes were deployed from ground-based launchers. Later, during the first air tests conducted in the fall of 2016,  a swarm of over 100 drones was dropped from three F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft.

The American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing the Gremlin program, which provides for building small (although bigger than Perdix) combat drones, capable of autonomous flight, which could be deployed from an airborne platform – a transport aircraft or even a fighter. Plans assume mounting various sets of specialized equipment on Gremlins, which would enable them to execute combat missions of different kinds.

Valkyries, Gremlins and Perdixes are low-cost machines. The point is to produce equipment using cheap and available materials, and a relatively easy production process, so that losing a drone is not a big financial blow. This is a reaction to very expensive and complicated projects, such as the new-generation fighters. Losing even five Valkyries, estimated at 2-3 million dollars each, will not be as problematic as losing one state-of-the-art fighter worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The latest models of UAVs are very autonomous. They are to execute as many tasks as possible without an operator’s assistance. Systems controlling flight parameters have been used for a long time now, but the latest designs are even more advanced: their autonomy is not limited to repetitive actions, such as take-off and landing, but they are also to react accordingly in atypical circumstances, and adjust to the situation on the battlefield. This requires more advanced systems, so there is talk of using artificial intelligence. The future drone is supposed to detect danger on its own, for example to identify if an oncoming object is a bird, a balloon, or rather an enemy drone, and react accordingly. “The first phase of introducing this type of unmanned aerial platforms into service will be letting the robot autonomously execute its mission up to the moment of taking the decision on destroying the target. The final element of such decision will be a person, the so-called kill-switcher. In the next phases of development, unmanned platforms using AI will get full autonomy in taking and implementing decisions on destroying the target,” explains Col Leśnikowski.

Lords of Life and Death

Wide use of drones on the battlefield also entails certain risks. One of such risks is enemy interception of the machine. It can fall into wrong hands, for instance, after the connection between the control station and the drone is hacked. There have also been situations, also in the US territory, when soldiers lost control over their machines. Hackers may also take over data collected during reconnaissance missions executed by UAVs.

According to Col Zieliński, drones will be used more and more often – by non-state actors as well as the armed forces or terrorists. In August 2018, there was an attempt to assassinate the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, using several UAVs. The president survived the attack, but due to the drones’ explosion several people were wounded. According to an expert, “this shows the negative side of using such small, commercially available UAVs.”

Another problem connected with the use of drones are disorders suffered by UAV operators. One of such cases is the well-known story of Brandon Bryant, the US Air Force NCO. He operated a Predator, pinpointing targets in Afghanistan from a military base in Nevada. He liquidated first Taliban in 2007, when he was just 21. After years of service, he was diagnosed with PTSD.

Col Leśnikowski explains that “attacking with real combat armament, confirming the effects of the attack when the consequences involve casualties among civilians who have not been taking part in the military action, causes the same post-traumatic stress as in the case of soldiers that have direct, physical contact with the enemy.”

This is only one side of the coin. Scientific research proves that people who live in regions where UAVs operate may also suffer from anxiety. Such conclusions were drawn by psychiatrists of Stanford University, who in 2012 conducted research in Pakistan. They found that living “under the drones” is connected with stress and permanent feeling of threat, and that people who reside in regions where UAVs operate suffer from neurosis and psychosis more often than others.

There are also ethical issues connected with the development of autonomous systems. Although for the time being there are no devices on the market that would be capable of making decisions instead of humans, experts admit it is just a matter of time. “I think people should have never agreed to the creation of fully autonomous combat drones. In 2015, over 3,000 scientists working with AI signed a petition regarding the prohibition of conducting research and developing AI-related technologies in connection with combat systems,” points out Col Zieliński, adding: “In March 2019, the UN Secretary-General gave a thought-provoking speech. He said that »machines with the power and discretion to take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable, morally repugnant and should be prohibited by international law.«”

It must be kept in mind, however, that using drones on the battlefield is not unrestricted. Although there are no legal regulations directly applying to UAVs, according to Col Zieliński they are not necessary. Using drones should comply with international law on armed conflicts. UAVs must be treated as any other aerial vehicle, so, similarly to manned aircraft, they must not attack non-military targets, they should avoid losses and unintended damage, i.e. caused against civilians or objects occupied by civilians. “In the future, if these systems become autonomous, we should really think about introducing appropriate changes in international law,” emphasizes the officer. One of the controversial issues is using combat drones for the so-called targeted killing. Col Zieliński explains that it means a lethal attack on a particular person regardless of their direct involvement in military action, but more because they create a potential threat. Targeted killing is employed both during war and peacetime. It was used against Anwar al-Awlaki, a terrorist connected with Al-Qaeda. The attack was carried out from the MQ-1 Predator in September 2011.

Regardless of the above concerns, the future belongs to drones. As Col Leśnikowski points out: “Unmanned platforms are becoming more and more popular actors in the theater of war. They provide a high degree of safety both to defense systems and protection systems. It is claimed that unmanned combat and support platforms will be one of the strategic directions of development of the Polish Armed Forces, next to cyber-security means and satellite security technologies.”

Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek, Robert Sendek

autor zdjęć: Shutterstock

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