By LT Col. Mike Fowler
Assistant Professor of Military and Strategic Studies
United States Air Force Academy
Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article, and views expressed by any contributor to In Homeland Security, do not represent the views of American Military University, American Public University System, its management or employees.
Financially, military innovations are often far more complex than they may at first appear. Cost models that focus exclusively on the cost of the unit and the control device are inadequate. While this may be a suitable cost model for the hobbyist, it is not sufficient for military operations since it does not account for related overhead and operating costs. For large organizations, adoption of a new technology has cost implications, both monetary and man-hours, across the spectrum of DOTMLPF (Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materials, Leadership, Personnel, and Facilities).
Technology adaptation typically drives requirements for new organizational policies, safety procedures, training for pilots and maintainers, logistics (fuel and spare parts), maintenance, scheduling, supervision, and facilities (for storage). If the UAV is replacing a helicopter or other type of manned aircraft, then the change in overhead costs is minimized. But, if the UAV is replacing a function currently performed by personnel on the ground, the overhead costs could become a serious obstacle to technological adoption. For ground operations that might be more effective from the air (for instance, due to the field of view, point of view, or speed), resource limitation is often the inhibiting factor in the use of manned aircraft.
In the zero-sum budget world of the Department of Defense, adoption of new technology involves additional risk because the cost must be offset by another program. Unlike the corporate world, the military cannot offset the additional costs of technology adoption by using the new tool to create a new revenue stream. Therefore, increasing costs are scrutinized because the zero-growth budget requires the identification of cost offsets, a difficult and often politically charged process. To put the potential benefits and costs of future UAVs into context, this article will first review the existing benefits and costs of UAVs relative to manned aircraft.
Early UAVs had limited benefits. Regular combat use for UAVs, primarily for ISR, began in the 1960s. Initial datalinks, inadequate precision navigation, line-of-sight range limitations, and susceptibility to electronic warfare jamming limited the usefulness of early UAVs. The primary benefit of early UAVs was reduced risk to personnel in a high-threat air defense environment. In an ironic foreshadowing of the future, the U.S. Air Force largely abandoned its UAV programs after the Vietnam War since they were not suitable for conventional warfare in Central Europe against the Soviet Union. It was assessed that the mobile surface-to-air missiles of the Soviet would make short work of UAVs over the Fulda Gap. Modern-day UAVs began in the mid-1990s with the MQ-1 Predator.
The contemporary UAV performs a variety of combat missions that tend to fall into one of the two categories: support to ground forces or participation in the joint targeting process. UAV support to ground forces includes close air support (CAS) for troops in contact, route reconnaissance, security overwatch, communications relay, and support for counter-battery fire. For targeting, UAVs are especially useful for target development, target clearance (to minimize collateral damage), and battle damage assessment (BDA). However, none of these missions are unique to UAVs. Each can be accomplished by manned aircraft. In fact, even the UAVs dual role as ISR and attack platform is also available in a manned aircraft version. Yet, the demand from the combatant commanders for UAVs far outstrips supply.
Current UAVs have a variety of competitive advantages that make them more desirable for certain missions or operations than their manned aircraft counterparts. UAVs have a smaller logistics footprint. UAVs can operate out of austere locations or navy destroyers. Smaller, less capable UAVs can be carried in a backpack. Compared with most other ISR platforms, UAVs are less observable, and have superior on-station time. Compared with strike aircraft, UAVs provide superior target discrimination, less potential for collateral damage, and reduced risk to the aircrew. This makes UAVs ideal for unconventional missions such as counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, or other missions with a negligible air threat.
Of course, current versions of UAVs have a variety of disadvantages. They tend to have lower thresholds for adverse weather, a smaller field of view, and lack defensive countermeasures. These weaknesses make UAVs a sub-optimal platform for high-risk missions, broad area surveillance, or operations in anything other than a low-threat environment. Ironically, current UAVs are not significantly cheaper than their manned counterparts. The MQ-9 and the U-28 have similar purchase, maintenance, and operating costs. UAV cost advantages are primarily limited to small, short-range, unarmed UAVs such as the Ravens, which have no equivalent manned counterpart. Over time, the increasing costs and production times to create survivable manned aircraft will increase the comparative cost advantage of UAVs.
From an incremental innovation standpoint, the most likely near-term advances in UAVs will begin by decreasing the existing disadvantages and increasing the advantages. Considering that the U.S. Air Force is the primary provider of UAVs to the joint commander, this study will approach the costs and benefits of UAV innovation through an Air Force core missions framework: air superiority; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); rapid global mobility; global strike; and command and control (C2).
Stay tuned to In Homeland Security for the third part of this five-part article series featuring expert analysis from Global Security and Intelligence Studies – a peer-reviewed, open-access journal.