The US Air Force's current fleet of unmanned aircraft will be irrelevant in the Pacific theater, a top service official says.
Over the past 10 years, the US Air Force has built up a still growing fleet of slow moving but persistent General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft. While those aircraft provided US ground forces with unprecedented situational awareness, they are too vulnerable to be used in a high threat environment.
"We are now shifting to a theatre where there is an adversary out there who is going to have a vote on whether I have that staring eye over the battlefield 24[hours], seven [days a week], 365 [days a year], and pretty certain they are not going to allow that to happen," says Gen Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "The fleet I've built up-and I'm still being prodded to build up too- is not relevant in that new theatre."
Hostage says that the USAF will have to adjust its force structure to meet the demands of the Pacific theatre. But, he emphasizes, the USAF has no intention of backing away from the capability unmanned aircraft bring and the "new style of warfare" that they enable. The USAF will have to adjust its perspective on "what's realistic in this new theatre," Hostage says.
A drawdown is all but inevitable; the USAF simply does not need to maintain 65 combat air patrols unless there are major ground combat operations underway, says analyst Dan Goure, of the Lexington Institute. "They are inevitably going to have to park some of those, just because of the manpower requirements," he says. But that could free up resources to build a new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform to tackle the emerging anti-access/area denial challenges emerging around the globe.
Goure says such a platform should be unmanned and designed for flexibility to conduct ISR, electronic attack and cyber-warfare missions. Unmanned aircraft have certain advantages; no pilot is put into harm's way and the aircraft have much more endurance than a manned air vehicle. "They don't whine about having to go to the bathroom, they don't get tired, so I can put them over a target for 30 hours and cycle the crews out of the crew station," Hostage says.
But the machines are not cheap. "They are not expendable, they are very expensive," Hostage says. Moreover, unmanned aircraft do not have the "awareness" of a manned aircraft. While the sensor suite on an unmanned aircraft can take a very detailed look of a very small area, the operators have no awareness of anything outside of the "soda straw" view of the aircraft's cameras. By contrast, the pilots of manned aircraft have a much wider vantage. "There are things that the UAV [unmanned air vehicle] can do that people can't do, manned aircraft can't do. Principally that's endurance," Hostage says. "But we have not created the ability to have the same level of awareness, the same level of ability of decision-making on a platform, the same level of effectiveness as a manned platform."
In the future, Hostage says that he believes unmanned aircraft will eventually have the same level of awareness as manned aircraft. With virtual reality technology, it might be possible to fully immense a pilot into the battlefield environment to the point where he or she cannot tell the difference. "I fully believe we'll get there some day," Hostage says. "But I don't have that technical capability today."
While it is technically possible to make an autonomous unmanned aircraft that could go fly combat missions, Hostage says, such technology is not ready for use in the near future. "I can build a platform and I can give it autonomous capability, and tell it 'go into this area and kill anything that moves,' but we're not morally or culturally ready to do things like that because we're not able to make them smart enough to determine between the adversary and somebody that looks like they are an adversary, but maybe they aren't quite."