With UAVs enjoying tremendous success in recent conflict zones, like Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel-Palestine its importance as a war tool has increased drastically. As a result, the interest of countries in developing and acquiring UAVs as part of their overall arsenal has increased tremendously.
Research organizations are receiving increased funding for development of UAVs, and also for research and development of technologies associated with UAVs. Increased allocations are also being made for armed forces to acquire UAVs as part of their inventory.
In an effort to keep up with the pace of development in the field, aerospace journals and magazines are dedicating special issues to the topic and also organizing seminars, conferences and air shows.
In spite of all this attention and heightened interest, the fact is that UAV/UCAV technology is still at a stage of infancy and not very many models have been inducted as part of wartime operations. Though most of the products are emerging from the US and Israel, a lot of developmental activity is also being carried out in Europe, China and India.
This article gives an overview of UAV/UCAVs, their potential uses and application, and challenges faced in their design and development.
A short history
According to some, the first unmanned flight took place over 2000 years ago when a young man in China flew a kite with a piece of string as a down link to the controller on the ground. During WWI, the Americans used a flying bomb, an early ancestor to modern UAVs. During WWII, both the US Army and US Navy used unmanned strike missions.
The Ryan 147 was used during the Vietnam War primarily for surveillance missions. Subsequently, a great deal lot of research went into technologies related to the development of UAVs and plenty of developmental trials were carried out.
In the 1990s the use of UAVs, during the first Gulf War as well as the Bosnia peacekeeping operations, was significant. This increased emphasis on UAV operations led to advancements in unmanned aviation. Thanks to the advancements made over the last decade a lot of UAVs, designed primarily for surveillance and reconnaissance roles, such as the Heron, Predator, Hunter and Searcher etc, have now become operational.
The UAV Predator has also been used successfully in an armed role in the course of the Afghanistan conflict. However, as far as fully operational UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) projects are concerned, it can be said that they are still at a developmental stage.
An UAV is an air vehicle, which behaves intelligently, despite the absence of a onboard human pilot. It has a remote operator providing continuous, or intermittent, commands during all phases of its mission flight, or it may be automatically piloted without human interaction. The rationales, for the use of UAVs, are:
| ||Increasing lethality of warfare, |
| ||High attrition, |
| ||Personnel cost - High cost of training pilots, casualties not acceptable, and|
| ||Hazardous and monotonous mission execution. |
In general, the advantages of UAVs can be listed as:
| ||Fearless, |
| ||No human limitations, |
| ||Operate in a risky environment, |
| ||Higher maneuvers feasible, |
| ||Extended Mission - no restrictions of sleep or rest, |
| ||Absence of humans on board results in smaller, lighter, cheaper system, |
| ||Lower Vulnerability on ground, |
| ||Greatly reduced vulnerability in air, |
| ||Applicable for expendable (suicide) missions, |
| ||More survivable - because of low signatures, |
| ||Low cost and thus higher number of air strike missions, |
| ||Cause less damage to environment, |
| ||Incurs reduced expenditures for training and fuel consumption.|
The disadvantages could be said to be:
| ||Greater expenditure for on-board equipment as a human substitute, and|
| ||Greater degree of dependence, and thus tactical risks during data transmission. |
The several key critical technologies that pose a challenge for the development of the UAVs are:
| ||Integrated Vehicle Design, |
| ||Survivability - Stealth Technology, |
| ||Seekers, |
| ||Sensors, and on board electronics, |
| ||Gust Alleviation technology - Gust Busting - All weather flying capability, |
| ||Low cost manufacturing and assembly, |
| ||·Propulsion, |
| ||Navigation - Situation Awareness Terminal (SAT), |
| ||Jam resistant data links. |
The major issues that pose a challenge for the deployment of UAVs are:
| ||Certification and inspection/or airworthiness, |
| ||Cost effectiveness, |
| ||Launch and Recovery of UAVs, |
| ||Air space allocation and control and,|
| ||Associated EMI problem. |
As far as UCAVs are concerned, most visionaries see Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) and Deep Strike as the most probable missions. The three D's could characterize the missions of a UCAV: Dull, Dirty and Dangerous.
Dull means long endurance missions that can last for several hours, or even days - too long for a pilot to physically endure.
Dirty missions are those where threat of biological and chemical contamination is too high to risk sending in a manned aircraft.
Dangerous missions are nothing but combat missions. SEAD, for example, is one of the most dangerous missions that manned aircraft are used for today.
However, not many visionaries suggest that UCAVs will completely replace manned aircraft in the foreseeable future. The advantages of the UCAVs over their manned counterparts are:
| ||No Crew Risk, and|
| ||Vehicle cost, training and peacetime savings. |
The technological challenges faced in the development of UCAVs today have resulted in the successful development of many technologies, such as miniaturization of electronics, improvement of sensors, development of reliable and jam resistant data links.
The design and development of a UCAV with stealth features is another challenge. Along with this there are other challenges related to issues such as the development of weapons and payloads, command and control, autonomy and cost effectiveness.
It is certain, that at some future date, combat units will see UAVs/UCAVs and fighter jets parked on the same flight line. Overall, the future of air combat lies in a mix of multi-role fast jets, multi-role big aircraft, UAVs/UCAVs and ground-based missiles.
Defense-based research in countries all over the world must explore the potential of UCAVs, or else their countries may lose their airpower edge. A dictum of Giulio Douhet, one of the great airpower pioneers, must be kept in mind:
"Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the change occurs."
*For further information/details/clarifications the author can be contacted through email firstname.lastname@example.org "
(i) Article on Vayu Aerospace: 2003
(ii) Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicles, Richard M Clark, Lt Col USAF, Cadre Paper No 8, Aug 2000.