UAVs may play increasing operational role

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott Elliott
  • Air Force Print News
The Air Force's deputy chief of staff for air and space operations is cautiously optimistic about the growing role of unmanned aerial vehicles and remotely piloted vehicles in future conflicts.

"We're in a position where technology and miniaturization can now begin to give us things we haven't been able to do before," said Lt. Gen. Ronald E. Keys. "What we have to do is make sure we're leveraging the peculiar characteristics of UAVs to take advantage of those things they do better than manned aircraft."

To do that, Keys said the Air Force has to determine what capabilities it needs to successfully operate across the Air Force's broad mission.

"I need to be able to look at things adversaries don't want me to see," he said. "I need to be able to stay in the area for a long time. I need the ability to go into denied territory with an aircraft that, if lost, won't cause huge political fallout or result in a combat situation to rescue someone on the ground. I need precision-engagement capability."

Of those requirements, Keys said the remotely piloted vehicle has already proven its value. The Predator is able to remain airborne over a single location for 14 to 16 hours, and has been successfully armed. The Air Force's premier UAV, the Global Hawk, can provide detailed surveillance for 24 hours or more.

"Along with its persistence, it brings what I call 'digital acuity,'" Keys said. "It is as bright and wide awake in the 24th hour as it was in the first minute. It doesn't get tired and doesn't get hungry. It hangs there. It stares. It gives us an opportunity for predictive battle space awareness and time sensitive target engagement."

Although their small size makes UAVs hard to detect, Keys said stealth technology would make the aircraft even more valuable.

"We'll have the ability to go into denied areas, and people won't know we're there looking at things they don't know we're looking at," he said. "Even if they know we're coming, they can't find us."

Yet despite its current successes and the promise UAVs hold for the future, Keys cautions against reckless acquisition.

"We don't want to buy UAVs just because they don't have a pilot in them," he said. "We should buy UAVs because they give us capabilities we can't get from spacecraft or manned aircraft."

While remotely piloted vehicles have advanced to the point that the drones can carry and successfully use weapons, the general said there is one vital aspect of manned aircraft that technology has not yet been able to duplicate.

"You've heard about people doing or seeing something and the hair goes up on the backs of their necks? Computers have problems with hair standing up on the backs of their necks," Keys said. "The ability of the human mind to have a very large field of vision, absorb input, focus and fuse it quickly to make a decision are advantages of manned aircraft."

Until such time as technology can totally remove pilots from cockpits, the general sees an operational mix of manned and unmanned aircraft.

"I think there will be a balance in our force," he said. "Will there, one day, be all UAVS and RPVs? I don't know, but I have five grandchildren and I hope that, at some time in the future, one of them won't have to go to downtown bad-guy country in a manned system because we arbitrarily didn't pursue a system just because it didn't have a pilot in it.

"If we can get unmanned or remotely piloted systems to do the things that need to be done, then we'll pursue it. That's our commitment."