Unmanned aircraft technologies have now matured well beyond just reconnaissance, security, and targeting. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are now under taking all missions including heavy-lift cargo. World is at a transition. There are some who see the JSF F-35 Lightening II as the last dedicated manned fighter/bomber. Solar-powered UAS are already flying. Currently, the solar-powered Airbus Zephyr holds the endurance record for UAVs, with 25 days in the air1. Dual use (optionally manned) aircraft are also flying. USAF has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly them remotely. For long the Russians have been using unmanned MiG-21s as targets. In France, Dassault leads a multi nation project for delta wing UCAV ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 20002. UK has a Strategic UAS program ‘Taranis’3. UAS are taking-off and landing by themselves including on the moving aircraft carrier (Northrop GrummanX-47B). Autonomous air refuelling has been tested. Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone ‘Sea Ghost’4 looks rather like a stealth bomber and is expected to carry 1,000-pound class weapons. USA’s new strike bomber is likely to be optionally manned5. Uninhabited helicopter convoys will deliver supplies to troops deployed on combat front lines. Coordinated UAS swarms have been tested by both USA and China. The US Army’s dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is embedded in the UAS roadmap. USAF’s UAS vision document indicates that by year 2047 every mission would be unmanned.
UAS Military Missions and Classification
The UAS could be a fixed-wing aircraft or a rotorcraft. The military missions include ‘Target’ for aerial gunnery, ‘Decoy’ for enemy missiles, reconnaissance, battlefield intelligence gathering, unmanned aerial combat missions, operational logistics, and defence research and development. They can be further classified based on range of operations such as Hand-held (2 km), Close-range (10 km), Tactical (160 km), Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE)(over 200 km), and High Altitude Long Range (HALE) with range unlimited. UAS are now mostly being assigned the ‘Dull’, ‘Dirty’ and ‘Dangerous’ missions. Dull work could be such as long somewhat boring reconnaissance missions. Dirty would mean entering into a chemical or nuclear affected areas with high unsafe radioactivity. Dangerous missions involve penetrating contested air space or opening corridors or short time windows for fighters to surge into, or targets requiring long-range precision fires. More and more drones are being armed with air-to-surface weapons. UAS are also being used for missions like electronic attack or other non-lethal effects. The UAS swarm could also act as a multi strike decoy or jam the enemy defences through sheer numbers. UAS will be a must to lead into territories with integrated air defences. UAS will continue to act as an eye-in-the-sky, and also to mark targets for Laser weapons and support to direct fires.
Endurance – The Great Plus
Unlike human pilot, UAS endurance is not constrained by physiological limits. Wankel rotary engines which are highly fuel efficient are used in many large UAS thus increasing range and payload. Aerial refueling will add to the endurance. Hydrogen fuel cells may extend the endurance of small drones, up to several hours. Micro UAS endurance is so far best achieved by flapping-wings. Solar-electric UAS have achieved flight times of several weeks. Solar-powered atmospheric systems operating at altitudes exceeding 20 km may one-day operate for as long as five years. Electric UAS powered by microwave power transmission or laser power beaming are other potential endurance solutions. RQ-4 Global Hawk, a full-scale operational unmanned system flew for 33 hours in 2008. QinetiQ Zephyr Solar Electric flew foe 336 hours in July 2010.
Proliferation of UAS
UAS are today used by more than 60 countries, with a few making their own. USA is the leader with nearly 10,000 operational military systems which is more than the combined strength of the rest of the world. UAS already outnumber the manned aircraft in US Armed Forces. During theatre level operations in Afghanistan UAS flew nearly 200,000 hours a year. USA is also the lead manufacturer with Israel a close second. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems are world’s leading manufacturers. IAI’s Harpy, Harop, Searcher and Heron are flying world over in large numbers, including in India. Elbit’s Hermes 450 assault UAS carries two missiles. Miniature UAS are being used for visual and audio snooping operating in small confines like rooms or bunkers. Rotary winged UAS (RUAS) such as Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scouts6 are increasing in numbers. USA manufactures around 50 percent of all military UAS. The leading civil UAS manufacturer is China. As per U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)7, as of April 2020, 1,563,263 drones are registered, of which 441,709 are commercial drones, and 1,117,900 are recreational drones. 71,744 Remote Pilots are certified. The debate between manned vs. unmanned need not be a binary one. Offloading some manned tasks to UAS will help aircrew focus on other critical areas requiring human interface. Even Armed UAS are intensively manned, albeit at stand-off safe haven control centers.
AI Enabled Drone Swarms
UAV Swarming has been possible due recent advances in chip technology and software for robotics, and it has become feasible to design machines exhibiting complex behaviour, achieve mutual coordination and accomplish complex tasks. Aerial robots can ascend synchronously8, communicate with each other in mid-air and create cross-references. Fixed formation group flights and complex group manoeuvres are possible. The swarm of drones behaves and functions somewhat like swarms occurring in nature, e.g., honeybee swarms, flying in coordination, displaying collective intelligence and each executing a small share of the collective task. Very small Drones – some weighing less than five pounds – can cause devastating effect if they are armed with weapons, and flown in a swarm of large numbers. Drone swarms can be both remotely operated or fly autonomously, or may accompany ground vehicles and other aircraft. Even single getting through could be potentially lethal. Terrorists and other militants can also operate small, inexpensive drones loaded with weapons. Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, hard to catch on radar, and hard to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly in swarms. During the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea, a spectacular display by a quad-copter drone swarm comprising of 1218 drones left spectators astounded. In January 2017, the US Air Force carried out trials with 103 Perdix quad copter drones functioning as a swarm. The trial included airdropping of these drones in the battlefield from canisters carried by three F/A-18 fighter aircraft, gathering the drones in a swarm and then proceeding to engage targets in the battlefield9. In 2016, China demonstrated drone swarming using 119 larger, fixed wing, drones10. Russia has reportedly been working on a concept of drone swarming wherein the Scandinavian countries have seen Russian drones flying in formation over their skies.
Armed UAS or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) such as the General Atomics Predator and Reaper carry air-to-ground missiles and have great combat abilities. MQ-1 Predator is armed with Hellfire missiles and is being used as a platform for ground attack, including assassinating high-profile individuals (terrorist leaders). UAS like RQ-9 Reaper are being used to patrol and secure borders. Payloads like synthetic aperture radar can penetrate clouds, rain or fog and in daytime or night-time conditions. On the other hand, the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk operates virtually autonomously giving live feedback and only needs a command to ‘Take-off and Land’. Advances in technology have enabled more capabilities and Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) are being deployed on the battlefield. UAS roles have thus expanded to include strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defence, electronic warfare, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue, and combinations of these. The US military operates large numbers of combat UAVs. As a measure of relative cost, the MQ-9 Reaper costs US$ 12 million while an F-35 costs around US$ 95 million. In 2013, the US Navy launched a UAS from a submerged submarine. Since 1997, the US military has used more than 80 F-4 Phantoms converted into UAS as aerial targets for combat training of pilots. In 2013 unmanned F-16s joined as more realistically maneuverable targets.
UAS Evolving Operational Advantages
UAS have become too attractive and potent military asset for any significant power to ignore. USAF trains more UAS pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. UAS have much lower training costs and can best concentrate on ISR, close air support and take on some strike missions while air superiority could be handled by manned fighters. Manned aircraft are certainly better in dynamic environment. US Predators and Reapers were designed for counter-terrorism operations and in war zones in which the enemy lacks sufficient firepower to shoot them down. Full-fledged air-to-air combat capability, increased autonomy and UAS-specific munitions are part of the roadmap. UCAV is now a “first day of the war” force enabler which complements a strike package by performing the SEAD mission and pre-emptive destruction of sophisticated enemy integrated air defences in advance of the strike package. It operates at a fraction of the total Life Cycle Costs (LCC) of current manned systems.
The Unconventional UAS Threat
Terrorists, criminals, fanatics, and others find UAVs versatile, stealthy, and cheap airborne weapon. UAVs are also on the shopping lists of drug cartels, human smugglers, and corporate spies. Their prices have dropped to less than that of a TV set. UAS can threaten airspace security through unintentional collision, or even a deliberate attack or it could be loaded with dangerous payloads, and crashed into vulnerable targets. Payloads could include explosives, chemical, radiological, biological hazards, or even nuclear payloads. Decision makers must take into account the possible use of UAS by terrorists or unfriendly regimes. Ethical concerns and UAS-related accidents have driven nations to regulate the use of UAS. The export of UAS or technology capable of carrying a 500 kg payload at least 300 km is restricted in many countries by the Missile Technology Control Regime. Most countries have clampdown on all illegal UAS. The immediate concern for all is a possible low-level drone attack. Many countries are working on high powered lasers to damage UAS and send them out of control.
Counter Drone Technology
Counters to UAVs (C-UAV) have been evolved. Detection requires combination of radar, radio frequency (RF), electro-optical (EO), infrared (IR), and acoustic sensors. Interdiction would be through direct bullet firing, jamming RF and Global Navigation Satellite System, spoofing, lasers, cyber attacks, physical nets to entangle the target, projectiles, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), camouflage and concealment, water projectors, birds of prey or using another drone for direct hit, and combinations of those. C-UAVs could be ground or air-based. Drone swarms have some weaknesses and limitations too. Their offensive could also be blunted through a counter drone swarm. In January 2018, Russia confirmed a swarm drone attack on a its military base in Syria. Six of these small-size UAVs were reportedly intercepted and taken under control by the Russian EW units. The drones had satellite navigation electronics and carried professionally assembled improvised explosive devices (IEDs). USA is now deploying new radars like Q-53 system that can detect and identify such small objects and then initiate the kill chain using laser weapons. Lockheed Martin ‘Skunk Works’ engineers are doing research, to develop and implement the technology that will detect and defeat swarms. A 60-kilowatt system that combines multiple fiber lasers to generate the high power weapon of parallel beams. The laser weapon system can fire over and over, essentially creating an unlimited magazine of bullets. Cyber solutions to defeat drones are by using multi spectral sensor systems to detect and then using cyber electromagnetic to either disable the drone or physically take over and divert. The C-UAV mission relies heavily on advanced sensors; long-endurance platforms; data fusion to provide a view of the airspace being guarded; and some form of artificial intelligence (AI) to sort through and analyze incoming data. Hundreds of companies in more than 30 nations are reportedly working on more than 230 C-UAV products. US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects and China’s Scientific Research Steering Committee are leading research.
Ethical and Legal Issues and Regulation
With no pilot inside, there is a risk of lowering the bar to using force. There is a risk that a drone operator sitting in a safe haven at thousands of miles from the actual action could treat the entire event like a video game. As per existing international law, the drone is in many ways no different from other systems. There is a need to make sure the target is legitimate and it’s a proportional strike to the benefit to be gained, and there is a need to protect as much as possible the lives of innocents. In case of autonomous weapons guided by AI could they make decisions on their own that are detrimental to humanity. The technology is here, and it is being refined on a day-to-day basis. Most countries including India have put in place regulations for UAS operations. UAS weighing below 250 grams will follow the powered aero-model regulations. Larger sized will have to be registered in India with DGCA or equivalent foreign agencies. They will require air traffic clearances and also have to follow air route like other aircraft11.
India’s UAS Status
No one shares high-end UAS technologies. Indian Armed Forces operate nearly 150 Israeli Heron and Searcher UAS which are also operating in insurgency prone Jammu and Kashmir to sanitize the border and in remote regions of Ladakh helping incursion management. Indian Navy is covering part of the coastline. Indian Air Force (IAF) also uses them for target lasing, Battle Damage Assessment in addition to ISR functions. In Naxal prone areas UAS are tracking possible movements and also directing security forces to the targets. India is looking at more sophisticated systems like RQ-4 Global hawks that will help it monitor much larger area. Even the numbers have to increase significantly. Chinese UCAV designs are aggressively taking shape. WZ-2000 is a long endurance version Global hawk class UAS. Shenyang’s ‘Dark Sword’ is the stealth forward swept wing UCAV of Boeing X-45 class. Developed in Pakistan, ‘Burraq’ (Chinese UCAV design) and ‘Shahpar’ surveillance UAS were inducted late 2013.The Indian DRDO’s UAS ‘Nishant’ is tasked with intelligence gathering over enemy territory, reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, damage assessment, ELINT and SIGINT. It has an endurance of around four hours. DRDO is also developing autonomous stealth UCAV for IAF ‘AURA’, named ‘Ghatak’. It will be similar in design to Northrop Grumman ‘B-2 Spirit’ flying-wing and capable of releasing missiles and precision bombs. DRDO’s ‘Rustam’ UAS is meant to replace the Israeli ‘Heron’ in all three services one day. A large number of Indian companies showcased small UAVs at the Def Expo 2020. They have entered joint ventures with foreign companies for technology, but all found difficulty in managing India’s complex bureaucratic red tape and procurement system. In view of small defence expenditures and the persisting duplications of military capacities, mixed manned and unmanned air formations might be opportunity for future conflicts. India has to make a serious beginning to develop AI based weapon systems and platforms to stem excessive technological gap. Physically what counts is the systems inducted in Armed Forces. DRDO has to get its act right.
Future of Unmanned Systems
Lethal autonomous weapons12 (LAWs) that can independently search and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions, may operate in the air, on land, on water, under water, or in space. The autonomy of current systems as of 2018 is restricted in the sense that a human gives the final command to attack – though there are exceptions with certain ‘defensive’ systems. Autonomous weapons are today capable of deciding a course of action, from a number of alternatives, without depending on human oversight and control, although these may still be present. Soon B-1, B-52 or C-130 flying aircraft carriers will launch and retrieve drones. The US is developing new undersea drones that can operate in shallow waters, where manned submarines cannot. Russians have robots armed with grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs. China too is investing heavily in automated weapons systems and platforms. There are also UAS which operate at hypersonic speeds and sub-orbital altitudes, or even faster in low-earth orbit. Newer ones also employ stealth technology. There are miniature UAS of around 25 kilograms and micro air vehicles weighing as low as one gram. The flapping-wing micro-UAS imitate birds or insects; have inherent stealth for spy missions. The Nano Hummingbird is commercially available, and sub-1g micro-UAS inspired by flies, albeit using a power tether, can land on vertical surfaces. Other projects include unmanned ‘beetles’ and other insects. Research is exploring miniature optic-flow sensors, mimicking the compound insect eyes which can transmit data. Next-Generation UAS rotorcraft will have great tactical role including for the Armies and Navies who cannot continue to be dependent on runways. Unmanned surface ship are already on sea trials. The 132 feet unmanned Sea Hunter is designed to missions of up to 10,000 miles on a single tank of fuel. Autonomous ground convoys which are prone to IED attacks makes logistics another important area of autonomous systems.
This Article was written by the author for United Services Institution of India (USI) and has been significantly updated
Picture Credit: flightlineweekly.com