By James “Bolter” Thompson
As has happened since the first tactical aviators in 1911 decided to start shooting at each other from their reconnaissance planes, those that best adapt to the newest technologies the fastest will win. The P-51 helped shape WWII, the jet engine modernized the 60s and 70s, and Stealth dominated the transition at the end of the 20th Century. In the early 2000s, we saw the advent of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with short range remote-control Radio Frequency (RF) operations. We then witnessed the transition to the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) utilizing satellite transmissions for around-the-world operations with the MQ-1 Predator. When it was first born, the RPA was primarily used for aerial reconnaissance (the RQ-4 still has just the reconnaissance mission). But then they successfully mounted 2x Hellfire missiles onboard the MQ-1, and we could magically complete the entire kill chain with one aircraft. In 2007, RPAs evolved to the MQ-9 Reaper, which carries 2x 500-lb laser-guided weapons and up to 4x Hellfires and double the airspeed of the MQ-1 with an on-station time of over 20 hours on target.
As technology evolved, so did the nomenclature. UAVs are smaller, usually hand-launched, remotely controlled with RF and limited in range typically to a few kilometers and line-of-sight (LOS). The RPAs are typically larger, some to fighter aircraft size, and involve beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) satellite communications and huge operations and communications team to operate, including a pilot operator. Drones are semi-autonomous or fully autonomous vehicles, controlled by computers or navigation software, and range from small to large. With Drones, there is no pilot flying the aircraft full-time. Though the media and the uneducated general populous call everything Drones, there are significant differences between them.
In 2015, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will likely be the last manned strike fighter ever bought or flown by the Navy (1). This declaration kicked out a slew of anti-RPA/Drone comments throughout the entire military. The Air Force Reddit page, for example, discussed this very topic (2):
“Will the RPA mafia ever dethrone the Fighter Pilot mafia?”
“Not a chance, even if we were down to one manned fighter airframe.”
“Nope,” said a third.
“Nope, because no little kid wants to be one when they grow up,” answered a fourth.
“Any movie about them no matter how well made will get buried by a schlocky fighter jet movie, no one wants to watch Drones at an air show, very few will go out of their way to build a model Drone kit.”
I am a former F-16 and F-117 Fighter Pilot, and I admit…I poked my share of fun at UAVs and RPA drivers when they were first introduced 20 years ago! For the first decade, the Air Force rotated Fighter Pilots into the RPA for “short tours” of 3-4 years. These short tours cost valuable time and energy away from the Fighter cockpit and generated a lot of unwarranted hatred towards the platforms.
Perhaps the greatest arguments against the use of the RPAs/Drones come with their current inherent limitations – lack of in-weather capability, cost, and complication of maintaining the satellite communications systems and a significant air-to-air vulnerability. Mike Hostage, then chief of Air Combat Command (who I had the privilege of working directly for three times), said in 2013 that Predator and Reaper RPAs “are useless in a contested environment…I couldn’t put [a Predator or Reaper] into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it.” Though several RPAs were shot down during his tenure as the Air Force’s highest tactical commander, he acquiesced he never had to write a letter home to a family about the death of the aircrew (3).
Additionally, the arguments against RPAs/Drones transcends beyond the Fighter Pilot world, and over to the political realm, where some postulate that the presence of Drones is so complicated and vulnerable as to be of limited use or relevance to wars between states (4). I commanded an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) squadron in Afghanistan, where we had 280 Airmen dedicated to keeping the antenna network operational to broadcast RPA video and telecommunications feeds to the decision makers on the ground — complicated indeed.
The MQ-9 Reaper has been in service since 2007 and has spent more than a decade as the Air Force’s aircraft of choice for conducting surveillance and strike missions in the Middle East (5). “This weapon system has been a game changer,” said Chief of Staff David Goldfein about the Reaper at the Joint Base Andrews Air and Space Expo this past May. “It not only does the persistent (intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance), but the attack business better than anything else we have.”(6)
There are currently 65 RPA Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) around the world. A CAP in this instance is defined as a 24/7 coverage by one aircraft (or multiple aircraft to make 24 hours of coverage) in a specific region. As a former commander of two of these 24/7 CAPs, I can tell you that the advantages of the RPA are numerous. The endurance of the aircraft and its HD camera and other sensors allow it to remain over a target area long enough to find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess…the entire F2T2EA kill chain with one vehicle. The Reaper is also quiet and typically flies at altitudes between 25,000 to 30,000 feet, so it is difficult to detect from the ground. And finally, the flexibility of the aircraft system is incredible. For example, if the weather in Afghanistan is bad today, you launch another aircraft in Yemen instead. The crew sitting in the Ground Control Station (GCS) in Arizona that flies the plane is dual-qualified to fly in both theaters, so you maximize your productivity every day.
From a humanitarian perspective, the RPA capability also makes the likelihood of civilian casualties lower. When you are in a fighter aircraft, you have limited time-over-target before fuel considerations become a factor. Even with multiple external fuel tanks on board, you are limited to 1.5 to 2.5 hours on station at best. This could cause more time pressure on decision makers to determine if a target is legal and legitimate, and with more pressure, sometimes mistakes are made. With an RPA, you have likely watched the target for more than ten hours, so you have more time to wait and ensure certainty before striking. It does not mean that RPAs are infallible – and we should never expect zero casualties in war – but anything that helps decrease risk is a good thing given current political realities. In addition, some observers argue that Drones may even promote international stability: countries may be less likely to escalate a conflict if a Drone, rather than an aircraft with a human pilot, is shot down (7). We saw evidence of this over the past year when an MQ-9 was shot down over the Yemen, and President Trump wielded a moderated response to Iran despite an American aircraft being shot down (8).
THE COST EQUATION
The beauty of UAVs/RPAs/Drones is the relatively low cost compared to fighter aircraft…what makes them “expendable”. First, there is the cost of the aircraft themselves. The F-35A conventional-takeoff-and-landing model — which is used by the U.S. Air Force and most international users — is set to decrease from a Lot 11 price of $89.2 million to $77.9 million in Lot 14 (9). This is typical for a government acquisition process, the Research and Development costs are absorbed in the first lots, reducing costs of later purchase lots. In comparison, the last order of MQ-9s in 2019 cost $15.9 million (10). With no requirements for human-life sustainment systems, the aircraft simply cost less to produce – 80% less to be precise.
And then there is the cost of training the pilots. It takes 24 months including Pilot Training (12 months), Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (3 months), F-16 Replacement Training Unit (6 months) and Mission Qualification Training (3 months). The F-22/F-35 training pipeline is an additional 2 months longer than F-16 training because there are no two-seat models. Instructors cannot accept a less-trained pilot because they are not in the plane with them. MQ-9 training only takes half as long, 12 months, and includes Initial Flight Screening (RPA pilots only require 20 hours of actual flying time in 2 months), Undergraduate RPA Course (6 months), and RPA Mission Qualification Training (4 months) with much more of the training in simulators vice expensive airborne aircraft (11). Total costs for training are immense – a trained F-35 pilot costs $10.17M, an F-22 pilot costs $10.9M, and F16 training costs $5.6M per pilot. In contrast, MQ-9 pilot training is estimated to cost close to a C-17 pilot – $1.1M, with half the training time required. And, of course, if an MQ-9 is shot down, you do not lose the pilot, like you would in an F-16, F-22 or F-35. Given these astronomical costs, it is no wonder that it is more cost-effective to increase incentive pay than to expand the training pipeline to sustain the pilot inventory! (12)
The MQ-9 is also significantly cheaper to operate – only $3,624 per hour for “operational” flying hour costs. That compares to the much higher hourly cost to fly A-10s or F-16s: $17,780 per hour for the newly modified A-10C and $20,809 for an F-16C and the F-35 costs an incredible $44,000 per flying hour! (13, 14) At this rate, it is no wonder the MQ-9 is flying over 65 CAPs worldwide and the F-35 is not.
Four years ago, the Air Force opened the RQ-4 (reconnaissance only RPA that flies at 70,000’ for over 34 hours!) to enlisted aviators. There are certainly more in the enlisted pool to select from, 265,814 enlisted vice 64,025 officers in the Air Force today. But the Air Force set the requirements for enlisted pilots to have to have a bachelor’s degree and a pilot’s license, making the requirements virtually the same for officers at a level that is not required for any other enlisted career field. This move is designed to match the cost savings of the Army’s Warrant Officer program and MQ-1 enlisted operators – getting the same capabilities, but for 1/2 to 2/3 of the annual pay. (15)
The use of UAVs, RPAs, and Drones has expanded rapidly over the past decade. In June 2013, the X-47B achieved the first arrested landing of an unmanned aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier, and a few months later the first flight of an unmanned, remotely operated F-16 occurred at Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida. (16) The F-4 and the F-16 are currently used in an “optional-manned” configuration at Tyndall and White Sands Missile Range, in New Mexico, to test air-to-air missiles. The missiles are live fired at the remotely piloted fighter aircraft that is usually blown up – an impressive sight to see.
Last week, the Air Force’s 60th Security Forces Squadron launched the first Drone-based perimeter security system at Travis Air Force Base, in California. The Smart Air Force Monitoring System can be programmed to deploy from its base station after receiving a security trigger – such as a fence alarm, fire alarm or other distress call – and autonomously navigate the area. (17) The Air Force also issued a first-of-its-kind safety endorsement last month of an electric-powered helicopter-like cargo/taxi UAV. The Vertical Flight Society that promotes urban air taxis, says roughly $5 billion has been invested in the segment since 2014. (18)
Other US agencies are using the technology as well. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses two main variants of UAVs and RPAs. The MQ-9 is used with a passive detection Synthetic Aperture Radar that tracks moving objects along the vast expanses of our country’s southern border and oceans. They also use tactical UAVs, hand launched from their vehicles, to help locate groups and guide ground parties to investigate any illegal narcotic activity. (19) NASA has operated two MQ-9s for launch observation, and the CIA may or may not have ever flown MQ-9s…just don’t ask them…
CURRENT STATE OF IMPROVEMENTS AND EVOLUTIONS
With more advanced threats arriving on the battlefield and a greater number of commercial Drones on the market, the service is considering replacing the MQ-9 with a family of systems that could perform low-end missions at a cheaper price as well as other options that are more survivable than the Reaper. The Air Force issued a request for information to industry on June 3 for the so-called MQ-Next program, seeking market research on available technologies as well as conceptual designs (20). Improvements in the MQ-Next program include an all-weather flight capability, all-weather armament, low-observable (stealth) characteristics, and higher speed.
Despite the uneasiness when Drones are concerned, more and more of the world is learning to accommodate the new technologies, and America is not the only one getting in the game. Perhaps the greatest evolution this year is that the European conglomerate Airbus is going to build a “EuroDrone”, the next-generation medium-altitude, long-endurance Drone…magically similar to the MQ-9. (21) Russia is also developing a helicopter Drone to assist anti-aircraft weapon systems in their counter-UAV mission and “track down small and low-speed enemy Drones at low and extremely low altitudes.” Additionally, various types of Turkish-made Drones were used during the Azeri-Armenian conflict and helped Azeri forces break Armenia’s defense. (22)
In 2015, I served in an advisory role to the newly forming Civil Aviation Authority of Afghanistan (their version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)). As they rebuilt their airspace, they successfully established special corridors and altitudes that were designed for UAVs/RPAs/Drones. And they are not the only ones making accommodations for these aircraft – each year more countries make accommodating laws and airspace adjustments. In fact, only a small group of countries still ban Drones completely—15, or about 7.5% of the world’s countries, to be exact; Algeria, Barbados, Brunei, Cote D’Ivoire, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Morocco, Nicaragua, Senegal, Syria, and Uzbekistan. (23)
THE AMAZING FUTURE
The world of Artificial Intelligence and Drones is rapidly expanding. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has advertised three main efforts to evolve Fighter, UAVs, RPAs and AI Drones for maximizing combined tactical effects.
First is the Air Force’s Skyborg program, which is seeking to develop a suite of artificial intelligence-driven systems that will be able to control networked “loyal wingman” type Drones. General Atomics conducted a semi-autonomous flight test in October involving a stealthy Avenger Drone equipped with an “autonomy engine”. The Drone worked together with five other simulated Avengers to conduct a mock search for aerial threats in a designated area. (24) These aircraft are being built/tested to support a wide variety of mission sets, including air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, Offensive Counter Air/Defense Counter Air, ISR, Advanced Battle Management (ABM), Command and Control, Communications, and Data-Sharing Network architecture between F-22s and F-35s.
The second line of DARPA effort is the Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program. The technology development on the ACE program is designed to increase air combat autonomy performance in either supplemented or independent air-to-air engagements. Recently a simulated F-16 Viper fighter jet with an ACE artificial intelligence-driven “pilot” went undefeated in five rounds of mock air combat in a virtual simulator against a human F-16 Weapons School Instructor. However, before you write off all fighter pilots – the computer had the perfect intelligence information. The AI software was handed the exact parameters of the F-16 instructor’s “airplane”. And it reacted with amazing, highly calculated predictability to achieve high-aspect gun shots that are extremely difficult to execute in real life. There were no undefined variables, such as weather, ground, other aircraft, and differing aircraft performance to detract the AI machine. However, this field is extremely promising, and can certainly assist when combined with the other elements of the DARPA triad.
The third area in work is dubbed R2D2 (yes, you cannot make this up) – This line of effort is developing Drone technology with a more robust artificial intelligence control to support a pilot while executing the mission. As part of this line of effort, last month, a U-2 from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., flew with an AI algorithm that controlled the Dragon Lady’s sensors and tactical navigation during a local training sortie. The algorithm, developed by Air Combat Command’s U-2 Federal Laboratory successfully took over tasks normally handled by the pilot, in turn letting the flier focus on the flying. (25)
In 2001, I fought with everything I had to (successfully) avoid leaving the F-16 and go to an MQ-1 assignment. I was ignorant at the time and short-sighted. I later had the amazing opportunity to fly the MQ-9 right alongside the F-22 and F-16 as a Wing Commander at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. I saw first-hand the successful integration of Fighters, Army UAVs, and RPAs on the battlefield for combined effects overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of my Wing’s instructors surmised the situation quite perfectly: “I think the message to the fighter enterprise is not ‘We have no need of you,’ but rather, ‘If we’re serious about our trades, we both have great need for each other in the next fight.” (26) I can easily imagine the incredible force-enhancement that AI Drones can bring to the fight.
Our Air Force Chief of Staff, General Charles “CQ” Brown has thrown down, “We know that in order to fight and win in a future conflict with a peer adversary, we must have a decisive digital advantage…We must accelerate change and that only happens when our Airmen push the limits of what we thought was possible.” (27) We, the fighter pilots and all other kinds of tactical warriors, need to stop feeling threatened by Drones, UAVs, and RPAs, and fully apply our tactical minds to maximize the integration of capabilities and ensure America’s Air Superiority dominance for the foreseeable future.
- Navy Secretary Says Future Navy Fighter Planes Will Be Unmanned | Military.com, Kris Osborn, 16 Apr 2015.
- Will the RPA mafia ever dethrone the Fighter Pilot mafia? Air Force (reddit.com), March 2020.
- Predator Drones ‘Useless’ in Most Wars, Top Air Force General Says – Foreign Policy, John Reed, 19 September 2013.
- Drones Are Destabilizing Global Politics | Foreign Affairs, Jason Lyall, 16 December 2020.
- Congress resurrects MQ-9 Reaper program, adding 16 drones for the Air Force, Valerie Insinna, 23 December 2020.
- Inside the Air Force’s dilapidated MQ-9 Reaper school (taskandpurpose.com), David Roza, 8 May 2020
- Drones Are Destabilizing Global Politics | Foreign Affairs, Jason Lyall, 16 December 2020.
- Reports: MQ-9 Drone Shot Down over Yemen | Military.com, Hope Hodge Seck, 21 August 2019.
- In newly inked deal, F-35 price falls to $78 million a copy, Valerie Insinna, 29 October 2019.
- Justification Book (af.mil), March 2019.
- RPA Training Next transforming pipeline to competency-based construct, Dan Hawkins, 3 June 2020.
- The Cost Of Training U.S. Air Force Fighter Pilots, Niall McCarthy, 9 April 2019.
- A Rare Look Inside the Air Force’s Drone Training Classroom – The Atlantic, Corey Mead, 4 June 2014.
- The F-35 Is Cheap To Buy (But Not To Fly), Kyle Mizokami, 30 Oct 2019.
- AF opens enlisted RPA pilot program to all AFSCs , MSgt Amaani Lyle, 29 Aug 2016.
- The Unmanned Wingman – Foreign Policy, Greg Malandrino and Jeff McLean, 31 October 2013.
- Air Force launches drone-based security system at Travis AFB – UPI.com, Christen McCurdy, 17 Dec 2020.
- U.S. Air Force Gives Lift to Flying Taxis – WSJ, Andy Pasztor and Andrew Tangel, 10 December 2020.
- CBP small drones program | U.S. Customs and Border Protection
- Congress resurrects MQ-9 Reaper program, adding 16 drones for the Air Force, Valerie Insinna, 23 December 2020.
- Airbus prepares for ‘Eurodrone’ contract signing in early 2021, Vivienne Machi, 9 December 2020.
- Russia is developing a helicopter drone to destroy other drones, Alexander Bratersky, 17 December 2020.
- No Flying Allowed: The 15 Countries Where Drones Are Banned, Zacc Dukowitz, 25 February 2020.
- Pocket Force Of Stealthy Avenger Drones May Have Made Returning F-117s To Service Unnecessary, Joseph Trevithick and Tyler Rogoway, 5 March 2019.
- Glitzy Air Force Video Lays Out “Skyborg” Artificial Intelligence Combat Drone Program, Joseph Trevithick, 24 June 2020.
- Inside the Air Force’s dilapidated MQ-9 Reaper school (taskandpurpose.com), David Roza, 8 May 2020.
- U-2 Flies with Artificial Intelligence as Its Co-Pilot – Air Force Magazine, Brian W. Everstine, 16 Dec 2020.