War of Machines

By George Cahlink

July 15, 2004

When the job is too dangerous, monotonous or demanding, send in the drones.

During last year's Iraq campaign, Army Maj. Hilton Nunez felt more like an air traffic controller than the commander of six Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles. He juggled requests from Army generals for use of the pilotless aircraft. A division commander wanted a UAV to check for surface-to-air threats. A corps commander sought one to fly far ahead of advancing troops to gather intelligence for the next day's war planning. There were never enough UAVs to go around.

"There was a constant battle over who would control the UAVs," Nunez says. His compromise was to have his Hunters assess surface-to-air threats en route to performing scout duties for advancing troops. It worked. During the war, a dozen Hunters provided targeting intelligence that allowed fighter planes to take out 900 tanks, an Iraqi fedayeen headquarters, and scores of anti-air defense and surface-to-air missile sites.

The Army's increasing use of UAVs reflects a wartime coming of age for unmanned vehicles once viewed as novelties. In Iraq and elsewhere, the U.S. military is short on people and cash, but desperately needs faster and better intelligence. The services are turning to drones for their dirty, dull and dangerous missions. Why send a pilot, soldier, seaman or marine when unmanned vehicles can launch air strikes without endangering pilots, and disarm bombs without risking soldiers? New communication technologies, advances in sensors and cheaper computing are making drones economical and more effective.

All the military services are developing and fielding unmanned and robotic technologies. Outfitted with missiles by the CIA, the Air Force's Predator unmanned aerial vehicle fired deadly strikes on suspected al Qaeda leaders in Yemen in 2002. Army robots are searching caves in Afghanistan and buildings in Iraq. A small unmanned surface ship has protected Navy aircraft carriers and cruisers in the Persian Gulf. The Defense Department wants to replace a third of its deep-strike air fleet with UAVs by 2010. By 2015, a third of all military ground vehicles should be drones. The proliferation of unmanned vehicles is changing how the armed forces fight wars, spend money and conduct research. And the rise of machines is forcing cultural and management changes.

Coming of Age

"UAVs played a major role in the 26-day combat campaign to end Saddam Hussein's stranglehold on Iraq, and [they] continue to play an important role in efforts to stabilize the country," Glenn Lamartin, director of defense systems for the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee in March.

When Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno commanded the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq last summer, he requested more UAVs, noting that those already in the Persian Gulf were in the air four times longer than expected. "Our [UAV] tips have resulted in capturing several Iraqi leaders," Odierno told Army leaders at the Pentagon. The Army accelerated fielding of short-range Shadow UAVs.

During the 1991 Gulf War, UAVs still were a novelty. Only one was fielded for reconnaissance. During the 2003 Iraq campaign, more than 10 types of UAVs performed short and long-term reconnaissance and served as "eyes in the sky" to protect U.S. and allied forces from attacks. Some launched missile strikes.

Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Mathewson, chief of unmanned aerial systems requirements for the Air Combat Command, says the aircraft have not changed much over the past decade, but the services are using them differently. For example, the Air Force's unmanned Predator provided intelligence during Balkans operations in the mid-1990s. In Iraq, the Predators collected intelligence, but also launched Hellfire missiles. In other cases, Predators provided targeting information to other weapon systems, such as A-10 aircraft and fighter planes.

The Marine Corps, meanwhile, sent a miniature UAV known as the Silver Fox to scout conditions as far as 10 miles ahead of advancing troops. The gas-powered UAV weighs only 20 pounds, has detachable wings and fits in a carrier just larger than a golf bag. The Navy had used the $20,000 UAV for spotting whales during exercises, but scientists added sensors and sent the Silver Fox to Iraq. More are being built.

Mathewson says UAVs not only provide intelligence, but are taking on the military's most dangerous air missions. "You can take risks with these aircraft that you would not normally take with people flying them," he notes. For example, UAVs can be flown in advance of manned fighter planes in areas with heavy air defenses. Unmanned ground vehicles are helping reduce hazards for ground troops as well.

Since spring 2003, hundreds of troops in Iraq have been killed or injured by ordnance lying along roadsides or inside buildings. In response, the Pentagon has spent about $18 million to deploy 163 unmanned ground vehicles with robotic arms that can remotely disable improvised explosive devices. The drones are equipped with all-terrain wheels, a special suspension system for climbing steps and video cameras. A typical vehicle costs about $100,000 and can be lifted out of the back of a Humvee by one or two soldiers. Several already have been destroyed while disabling bombs. Cliff Hudson, director of the Defense Department's Joint Robotics Program Office, says Defense relied on five manufacturers to build the vehicles because no single vendor could fulfill the urgent order. By 2005, the department wants to begin fielding the Man-Transportable Robotic System for disabling ordnance.

The Navy has used its nascent unmanned technologies in Iraq. The Spartan Scout, a sensor-laden, unmanned 23-foot rigid-hull inflatable boat, was deployed from the Navy's Gettysburg cruiser to investigate threats picked up on radar. Normally, the Navy would send out helicopters to look into those threats.

Booming Popularity

The Pentagon has increased spending on flying drones. Between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2009, the Defense Department proposes to spend $12 billion on UAVs, ranging from those that performed well in Iraq to yet-to-be-developed bomb-carriers. By 2009, the armed forces plan to spend $3.5 billion a year on UAVs. The highest-profile effort is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's $4.3 billion development of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System. It is designing a drone only slightly smaller than an F-16 fighter to drop guided bombs to suppress air defenses deep in enemy territory. Air Force bombers and Navy and Air Force fighters now handle those risky missions. Northrop Grumman and Boeing are building prototypes. By 2008, DARPA plans to purchase one or both models.

Michael Francis, who directs the DARPA program, says UAVs are a "marriage" of information-age technology and industrial-age aircraft. The falling cost of computing, better sensor technology, and improvements in wireless and network communications have enabled the proliferation of UAVs, Francis says. Popularity has boomed as communication capacity has increased, allowing them to share data and images in real time, he adds.

Defense is spending millions upgrading and adding to the UAV fleet. The Army is buying three more Shadows than originally planned in fiscal year 2004, and will expand the fuel tanks so they can remain aloft longer. The service spent $33 million in fiscal 2003 to extend the life of the Hunters by several years, replacing aging parts and adding new sensors. The Air Force is buying more high-altitude Global Hawk reconnaissance UAVs, and will have 51 by 2012.

Aerial drones resemble existing aircraft operating on autopilot, but ground vehicles often must be retooled completely to operate autonomously across varied terrain. Thus, development and adoption of ground drones has moved more slowly. But that's changing as technologies mature and systems prove their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan. NASA's recent success with the Mars Exploration Rover mission also has heightened military interest in robotics. "Almost every military mission out there is a candidate for being an unmanned mission in the future," says Hudson, who oversees about $40 million in annual Defense spending on ground-based robotics.

The Army will draw $500 million from its the $13 billion Future Combat Systems account over the next five years to buy unmanned ground systems. These include a 5-ton robotic vehicle that carries a small missile battery, a 2.5-ton logistics vehicle for transporting troops and supplies, and a 30-pound robot that soldiers can carry on their backs and deploy to sneak peeks around corners or over hills. The Marines are developing a 13-pound ground vehicle known as Dragon Runner, which can be maintained using nothing more than a screwdriver. A larger Marine all-terrain robotic vehicle, known as Gladiator, might someday be used for crowd control.

The Navy, meanwhile, is spending $30 million on the Spartan Scout unmanned surface vehicle. The ship could carry a gun system and the Army's Javelin missile system for combat missions. The Navy also is experimenting with an unmanned underwater mine-hunter. In April, the Navy lost one of the $750,000, 10-foot long mini-submarines during a NATO exercise off the coast of Norway. It washed up on a Norwegian beach a few weeks later.

Coming of Age

Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., chairman of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee, is an outspoken proponent of UAVs. He complained at a hearing in mid-March that they still are plagued by cultural opposition, unclear missions and poor acquisition planning, despite having shown their usefulness.

Nunez, who in addition to commanding a fleet of UAVs is an Army helicopter pilot, says many pilots fiercely oppose unmanned vehicles because they fear they'll lose their jobs. "When we first got to Iraq, Army pilots did not want us to fly in the same aviation [routes], but once they saw how we worked, they wanted us to fly to ensure a [route's] safety."

Cultural resistance has been greatest in the Air Force. Unlike in the Army, only pilots can operate Air Force UAVs. Before DARPA took over the program, the Air Force also consistently scuttled combat UAV development by underfunding it, according to Weldon. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, a fighter pilot, prefers to call UAVs "remotely piloted aircraft." He says the drones are best for missions that cannot be done by manned aircraft, such as surveillance for more than 24 hours. "What we have to be careful of is giving up the competitive advantage that we have in the skill of our pilot force," Jumper says. "To try right now to imagine an unmanned vehicle that we would be able to maneuver and engage in a fight with other fighters is not something I see happening any time soon."

Paul Francis, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the General Accounting Office, says the military services often develop UAVs using special acquisition programs with senior management attention in order to overcome funding problems and to clarify the intended uses for the drones. In 2001, the Pentagon created a Joint UAV Planning Task Force to improve management of aerial drone programs. In 2002, the task force released a 200-page report on UAV missions, including a detailed spending breakdown by service. Francis called the guide a positive step, but says it should be more comprehensive and the task force has only an advisory role. The Pentagon is updating the UAV road map.

Laurence Newcombe, director of UAV activities for SRA International, a Fairfax, Va., information technology company, says the Defense Department also must sort through UAV proposals from small companies and large Defense contractors eager to capitalize on an emerging market. He estimates that at least 50 companies, universities and other organizations have submitted more than 175 designs, but only a dozen have built flyable aircraft. "There are lots of charlatans out in the UAV market. Every retiree who's a frustrated modeler is starting a UAV company," he adds.

Other unmanned systems have yet to mature. DARPA dangled a $1 million prize to entice people to build vehicles that could drive themselves across a 142-mile course of sandy switchbacks and rocky plateaus in the Mojave Desert in March. But none of the contestants came anywhere near the finish line. The pre-race favorite, Sandstorm, a 1986 military surplus Humvee-turned-robot fielded by Carnegie Mellon University engineering students, went farthest-more than 7 miles-before catching fire and nearly going off a cliff.

Even without awarding the prize, DARPA Director Anthony Tether called the agency's Grand Challenge race a key step toward developing autonomous ground technologies for military use. "We learned a tremendous amount about ground vehicle technology," he says. In fact, Tether was so pleased with the enthusiasm created by this spring's race that DARPA will hold a second in August 2005. This time, the purse will be $2 million.

By George Cahlink

July 15, 2004