For the unmanned military systems often referred to as “drones” or “robots” the future is now. Today there are around 50 countries investing in the research, development and purchase of unmanned systems in order to add them to the fabric of their armed forces. The utility of unmanned systems has become readily apparent to military commanders during this era of irregular warfare, with their usage spreading to operational theaters as diverse as Afghanistan, Gaza, Georgia, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen.
Among the heaviest investors in unmanned platforms are the U.S. and Israel – two countries that have engaged in difficult theaters where intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance have proven invaluable for troops on the ground.
Though it had only a smattering of unmanned aerial drones on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003, today the U.S. has nearly 7,000 aerial drones in its military inventory, plus another 12,000 ground robots. Israeli industry is developing some 40 different unmanned aerial systems and Ministry of Defense labs are exploring innovative concepts for ground systems.
The most famous unmanned system currently in American service is the Air Forces’ MQ-1 Predator Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which is primarily utilized for surveillance but can also be outfitted with laser-guided missiles such as the AGM-114 Hellfire for use in targeted air strikes.
The Predator and its newer and larger relation, the MQ-9 Reaper, have seen increasing usage in the Afghan and Pakistan theaters, which in turn has elicited debate in the intelligence community as to the practicality of drone attacks in counterinsurgency operations. While no one disputes the value of these UAVs in providing useful intelligence to ground troops via video feeds, questions have been raised as to whether such air strikes create a negative perception of U.S. tactics amongst civilian populations, therefore helping fuel the very insurgencies American forces hope to quell.
This discussion aside, the U.S. Air Force has come to accept that UAVs are a crucial tool for modern combat operations. Evidence of the service’s transformation became apparent in 2009 when it trained more pilots for operating unmanned aerial systems than for manned fighter and bomber aircraft. Under its 30-year “Aircraft Investment Plan” the Air Force is planning on the $820 million purchase of 372 MQ-9 Reapers during the period between 2011 and 2018, plus some 60-odd RQ-4 Global Hawks. Overall, from 2008 through 2013 the Pentagon expects to invest more than $16 billion on the development and purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
For their part, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been utilizing UAVs in combat since 1982 when they first used them against Syrian air defenses in Lebanon. Faced with a complex operational environment involving a blend of urban combat and guerilla warfare, the Israelis have invested heavily in unmanned platforms and as a result are considered pioneers in the field. Led by Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Israeli defense industry has witnessed its UAV exports explode in the past decade, with clients such as Georgia, India, Poland, Turkey, and even Russia scrambling to get their hands on the platforms.
But it is for the purpose of outfitting their own forces that Israeli industry places its greatest emphasis on developing unmanned systems. The Israel Air Force recently declared its Heron TP high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAV (referred to as “Eitan” in Israeli service) to be operational. The 5-ton Eitan is capable of operating above 40,000 feet and remaining airborne for 24- to 36-hour periods. It will serve as one of the principal platforms in the Israel Air Force’ UAV squadrons, along with the mid-size, long-endurance Hermes 450 (“Zik”) and the Heron-1 (“Shoval”).
In addition, Israeli ground forces battalions will be receiving 100 Skylark 1 LE mini-UAVs produced by domestic manufacturer Elbit Systems under a $40 million contract extended by the Israeli Ministry of Defence under its “Sky Raider” program. The Skylark mini-UAVs have also been procured by countries such as Australia, Canada, France and Sweden.
Not content simply with unmanned aerial systems, the Israelis are increasingly utilizing unmanned ground systems such as the Guardium ground vehicle and the “Dawn Thunder” Caterpillar D9 bulldozer for operations in mine-laden areas and clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
While the Israelis forge ahead in terms of land-based unmanned alternatives, the U.S. and U.K. are the leaders in the research and development of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). Both countries are putting more and more emphasis on UUVs for harbor surveillance, submarine detection and mine-clearance purposes.
The boon in development, procurement and usage of unmanned systems is a reflection of their practicality within the battle-space. For instance, unmanned aerial systems serve as an effective force multiplier, enhancing the stand-off attack capabilities of the forces who wield them while also providing “over the hill” surveillance and real-time intelligence feeds. These systems also reduce the risk of friendly casualties, be they pilots in the air or soldiers on the ground. Unmanned aerial drones can loiter in the air longer than jet aircraft which rely upon the physical endurance of the fighter pilot. Finally, UAVs are a cost-effective alternative to expensive combat aircraft – though for now they remain a supplement to, and not a replacement for, jet fighters.
But with the positive factors also come negatives. These include the vulnerability of UAVs to signal-jamming, video feed hacking, and integrated air-defenses. The latter is of particular importance as American and Israeli drone operations have yet to confront robust air-defense networks where their UAVs lack of countermeasures renders them defenseless against enemy fire. There are also ethical concerns involving the use of unmanned systems. Governments may be led to believe that their use in the stand-off attack role shields them from public opprobrium since their own soldiers’ lives are not directly placed at risk. This in turn might lead to more liberalized use of drone strikes under the false assumption that these attacks carry with them few adverse consequences, such as unintended civilian casualties.
Despite these negatives, the pursuit of unmanned military systems from all corners has gone from a trickle to a flood. Most ominously, non-state actors have gotten into the game as illustrated by Hezbollah’s use of Iranian-made Mirsad-1 UAVs to penetrate Israeli airspace. Through the experience of their own operations in Afghanistan, NATO members have recognized the benefit of unmanned systems and have scrambled to outfit their deployable forces with them. Russia, too, has learned from battlefield experience, and after its brief war with Georgia in August 2008 the Russian military purchased 12 Israeli systems and is seeking a further 100 UAVs.
While the U.S. and Israel have been at the forefront of unmanned warfare so far, the gap between the haves and the have nots is shrinking. As that gap shrinks what was heralded only a few years ago as the wave of the future in military operations has suddenly become a practical tool for the wars of today.
Photo by The U.S. Army.