Having just read the article on the popularity of the King Air 350ER or RC-12. in the Afgan war, (In 1920s RAF used the Bristol F.2B) for ISR (military speak for Aerial Forward Observation). and how it is replaceing drones (I mean UAVs) in tactical missions, Joy now comes to my heart.
1. Historically and this goes back to World War One, the best recon for the troops was the contact patrol. That is the airplane and crew in direct contact with the infantry. Through dropped messages and colored flares and panels of cloth, a primitive interchange of information between the two parties was created. By World War Two the German war machine was so coordinated with pilots assigned to the front line troops and specialized army cooperation aircraft that the term Blitzkrieg “Lightning War” was born. This specialization of infantry/air support cooperation was improved and exploited by the Russians and the U.S. Marines to such an extent that it is traditional doctrine in both forces now.
2. In Vietnam, the U.S. suddenly faced the first none traditional war since the 1930s. But they had the example of WW2 and the use of Forward Air Controllers in light aircraft helping the troops and sighting for the fighter bombers were quite successful with that help.
3. Somewhere in the 1990s the USAF, always looking for an advance in technology began to develop a new generation of Drone (Remote Control) Aircraft. These aircraft were used for over the hill tactical recon, and proved very successful especially for artillery spotting. Then this enthusiasm for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) as Drones were now called took a turn. Basically the “Powers That Be” saw these UAVs as a cheap replacement for humans in risky missions, and one of these missions was the FAC. A risky business for a highly trained pilot. Of course, the UAV could be used; instant communication allowed the pilot to “fly” the mission safe in Nevada and the UAV could see the same detail with its cameras. But, the human investment was no longer there. The Cops were in Patrol Cars they covered more distance, there were fewer of them, and they saw less.
The troops on the ground no longer had that reassuring buzz overhead, they no longer had the scout who knew the local territory intimately moving ahead on high ground to spot potential traps, ambushes or to tell them that Mrs. Ahmed now had an extra garbage can, which might be a bomb, or that the boys who usually play football on 5th street are not there today.
The FAC flying a modern O-1 at 1500 feet can see vast swath in one glance and has the use of periphery vision which is sadly lacking in the two dimensional world of a UAV television screen.
The point I am trying to illustrate is the FAC in the Cessna will see more useful information for his companions on the ground, in five minutes than a UAV driver will see in a day. And if the tactics of the Vietnam FAC are used (not reinventing the wheel) the troops will be safer and the use of road side bombs will be curtailed.
Eliminating risk is a good thing, but is it technology’s objective to take the risk out of war? That is too philosophical for this author, but what I see is the misapplication of technology costing the lives of too many good men in a very dirty war, because that new technology just has to be used, regardless of an older and better way.
It seems the current tacticians have come to the conclusion discovered in world war one, that the guy is the sky has to be in harms way with the guy on the ground for the system (combined warfare to work). thus the come back of the Mark One Eyeball.
Think about it.
Admittedly I know very little about this kind of thing but doesn't the increasing use of UAVS come down to endurance as well as the no-risk factor for crew? A modern Reaper UAV can spend something like an entire day on station and the pilot could be swapped every couple of hours back in Nevada guaranteeing an always alert crew.
My wings are like a shield of steel.
The economy of the UAV can not be doubted but the tactical advantage is greater with the eye on station and not looking though the TV screen. Besides the light aircraft operating from a local field, say like Ag planes or the O-1 of Vietnam would mean the cycle of missions would be equivalent.