In March of 2003 the USA invaded Iraq with 11 UCAVs or drones in service. Back then the majority of these early, seemingly frail, UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) were prototypes, simply one off experiments. As to UCAVs having active roles in aerial combat, Command at most levels was disbelieving with an inferred ‘you have got to be shitting me’ from the Air Force Officer Corps to the Enlisted Airmen. The support and funding for the program was initially lethargic, but those non-believers either converted or retired.
The Military in all branches recognized drones as a way to protect troops by what they called ‘persistent loitering’ over enemy targets, informing the ‘boots on the ground’ of the enemy’s actions in real time. The CIA operates their 2 drones, which they admit to, out of Langley while the Military functions out of Creech Airforce Base in Nevada. UCAVs have long evolved from merely loiterers.
There are over 5400 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles in service in various capacities throughout the US Military. Upon mission specific orders these combat drones can be armed, with Hellfire missiles and engage high priority Taliban or Al Qaeda targets anywhere. The next objective for the pilotless aircraft is a 2000 pound payload. Not toy airplanes anymore.
Today’s generation of UCAVs are capable of firing a broad array of missiles, guided by their Air Force pilots flying from a simulator in Nevada, located 7400 miles away from Kabul Province, Afghanistan. Pertinent data are instantly downloaded via satellite, analyzed with a number of failsafe checks prior to initiating action.
US drones have been instrumental in the liberation of Libya, working in concert with NATO guiding airstrikes and providing Intel downloaded, analyzed and linked to the insurgents on the ground.
Designing unmanned aerial combat vehicles for attack removes the requirement to accommodate humans so considerable weight is jettisoned and not just the bulk of the pilot and navigator. No oxygen system, no ejection seat, no controls or gauges, no canopy or hydraulics (except nose wheels). These eliminations permit purer aeronautical designs delivering larger pay loads and enhanced stealth. They fly virtually unseen and unheard on lengthy recognisance missions, at over 40,000 feet because their cameras have astonishing resolution capable of facial recognition at great distances.
Tactical Command, while weighing high risk missions can now evaluate between placing a $140 million jet fighter with a $1 million pilot in harms way, or tasking unmanned drones to remove enemy emplacements threatening the jets mission path, in essence running interference. Decisions of this magnitude become much more direct when given options.
The UCAV are costly but not $ 140 million a copy and if shot down you don’t have to coerce a drone to self destruct by offering paradise and 72 virgins… just push the button in Nevada.
This is the future of air support.