The F-35 is the last manned fighter aircraft. Unmanned air systems (UAS) will take over all the missions currently performed by manned platforms.
These assertions are frequently heard from people that are supposed to know. But if you look at what happens in “the field”, things look different.
In Israel, a world power in UAS, these assertions became almost a scientifically based fact, but in recent months I have heard some new undertones.
The best example of the change is the Israeli plan to replace its maritime patrol aircraft with the Heron-1 (Shoval) UAS.
The early stages of operation showed that this is a very good system, but it has clear limits.
“The trend that was based on the slogan “If it is not a UAS I’m not buying” is losing its glamour,” said an Israeli aerospace industry source.
He explained that UAS in a maritime patrol mission is very good at close or medium ranges. However, when it comes to long-range missions the manned aircraft has the upper hand, and not by a small margin but “big time”.
This does not mean that UAS for maritime patrols will not be developed and sold, but unlike previous predictions, they will not eliminate the need for manned maritime platforms.
The same principal applies for airborne early warning (AEW) platforms. Here too the UAS cannot replace manned platforms.
UAS fly with intelligence-gathering sensors, but a full capability AEW/SIGINT platform must be at least the size of a medium business jet (G-550), in spite of the achievements in miniaturisation.
So UAS are here to stay and will take over many missions, but it’s too early to
think of shelving all military manned platforms.