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Unmanned aircraft take on increased importance

The U.S. military's expanded overseas use of unmanned aircraft highlights the increased importance of such aerial platforms to current and future military operations. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan was announced July 23 and will serve as a template for how the Air Force will look in 2047 - the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force illustration)

The U.S. military's expanded overseas use of unmanned aircraft highlights the increased importance of such aerial platforms to current and future military operations. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan was announced July 23 and will serve as a template for how the Air Force will look in 2047 - the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force illustration)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The U.S. military's expanded overseas use of unmanned aircraft highlights the increased importance of such aerial platforms to current and future military operations, senior Air Force officers said here July 23.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan announced July 23 will serve as a template for how the Air Force will look in 2047 - the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force -- Gen. William M. Fraser III, the Air Force's vice chief of staff, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.

"The future of our systems is really now," General Fraser said. "The Air Force today looks dramatically different than it did 35 years ago when I first came aboard on active duty."

The flight plan, he explained, lays out the Air Force's "vision for maximizing our efforts in unmanned aerial systems" today and in the future.

"We'll continue to push the UAS envelope," General Fraser said, adding that unmanned systems are unmanned in name only.

"While there may be no Airmen onboard the actual vehicle, there indeed are airmen involved in every step of the process," General Fraser said, including the pilots who operate the vehicles' remote controls and sensors and maintenance personnel.

Unmanned aircraft systems "represent an important addition to our comprehensive set of Air Force capabilities that actually define air power," General Fraser said.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, told reporters that unmanned aircraft systems have proven effective during aerial strike missions against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while also performing surveillance and intelligence-gathering missions.

Persistent flight capability, General Deptula said, is one of the advantages of employing unmanned aerial vehicles in military missions.

"What UASs bring to the table," General Deptula explained, "is the ability to stay in position or maneuver over large areas for a long period of time - that's where a person in an aircraft becomes a limitation."

UAS mission success rates have resulted in high demand for the unmanned aerial platforms, General Deptula said, noting that high- and medium-altitude UAS overseas combat missions have increased more than 600 percent during the past six years.

"What the Air Force wants to do," General Deptula said, "is to get the most out of these systems to increase our joint warfighting capability, while promoting service interdependency and the wisest use of our taxpayer dollars."

Yet, General Deptula said, the flight plan isn't just about how UASs are employed today, but also about how unmanned aerial technology could be applied in different mission realms in order to confront future challenges. For example, he said, UAS technology could one day be used in a modular platform that could perform a variety of tasks, such as cargo transport and aircraft refueling missions.

General Deptula equated today's level of UAS development with the progress made in manned aircraft in the 1920s.

There's "lots of potential" for expanding UAS technology across the military in the coming years, General Deptula said, but he also pointed out that replacing conventional fighter planes and pilots with unmanned aerial vehicles is a long way off.

The flight plan doesn't provide specific solutions, but it does address "concepts and possibilities that will fill in and morph over time," said Col. Eric Mathewson, the director of the Air Force's UAS Task Force.

The plan, Colonel Mathewson said, "allows us to reach out and talk to academia and industry, the other services, [Defense Department]-wide, our coalition and allied partners, and work together in a more efficient and synergistic way."

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