Warplanes: Top Gun For Robots

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June 10, 2009: The U.S. Air Force now has 127 Predator and 31 Reaper UAVs in service, along with 400 pilots to run them. With this force, they can put about 36 UAVs into the air at any given time. That's three times as many as three years ago. But this tiny force, representing less than five percent of air force combat aircraft, are doing the most important work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For nearly a decade now, the air force has been scrambling to supply enough operators for its growing fleet of UAVs. To that end, ten percent of recent graduates from pilot schools will spend three years operating UAVs, before going on to flying manned aircraft. In addition, the air force is also training non-flying officers to be UAV operators. Many of these officers could have been pilots, but were prevented from doing so because of physical limitations (poor eyesight or inability to handle the gyrations of aircraft).

The air force has long insisted that UAV operators already be manned aircraft pilots, and allowed most of them to spend only three years operating UAVs before returning to manned aircraft. This has limited the number of UAV operators available, and forced the air force to create a larger UAV operator training program than they would have needed if all UAV pilots were career UAV pilots. Some UAV pilots are now in it for their entire careers, and the air force is moving towards making it that way for all UAV operators.

The army already uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator shortage. The air force only recently made UAV operator a career field, not a temporary assignment (as it had been for years). The air force is under pressure (both from within, and outside, the air force) to allow NCOs to be career UAV operators.

A typical Predator crew consists of an pilot and one or two sensor operators. Because the Predator stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is used for each sortie. Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators being brought back to base before their fuel is used up.

There is also help on the way from the developers of flight control software. Many UAVs can fly quite well without any pilot at all. This is basically an adaptation of "automatic pilot" systems (which are now mostly software and sensors) that are now capable of doing practically all the flying for commercial aircraft. So it was no big jump to install these systems in UAVs and let them go on automatic. Global Hawk UAVs are sent across the oceans on automatic (including take-offs and landings). Using more of these systems for Predator and Reaper, eliminates a lot of the human error problems. This solution has been a trend in aircraft and automobile design for over two decades.

Predators and Reapers fly sorties, each lasting, on average, about 18 hours. Each sortie results in finding about two targets. About 15 percent of those sorties were in direct support of ground troops under fire, and about 20 percent were in support of ground troops engaged in raids. For the ground troops, the UAVs are the most important aircraft up there. The army has its own GPS guided rockets and artillery shells, but it does not have enough UAVs constantly monitoring the battlefield.

The large number of UAV operators has created a growing body of knowledge of what works, and what doesn’t. This has led to the establishment of a "graduate school" (the "Weapons School" or "Top Gun" course) for Predator and Reaper operators. This insures that useful combat knowledge is not lost, and is captured and passed on to other UAV operators. This is already paying off, in ways that are rarely reported (a lot of techniques are kept secret, lest the enemy have an opportunity to defeat them). But the growing success of these UAVs indicates that the knowledge is there and useful. The UAV Weapons School also develops new tactics, like the use of UAVs for taking out enemy air defenses (so that bombers, cruise missiles, or heavily armed UAVs like Reaper), can go in and hit other targets. This includes developing tactics for entirely robotic operations. UAVs need this for when they lose communications, and have to get back to base, or complete their mission. Nothing radically new here. Cruise missiles have been seeking out and destroying targets, on their own, for decades, but the new generation of UAVs are being trained, or programmed, to deal with more complex situations.

 


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