UCAV in warfare

As the modern battlefield becomes unmanned and electro-optic driven, the dependence on artificial intelligence is changing the face of the warfare as the next big war will be fought through a robotic concept to avoid human casualty.

Along with the rapid development of computer, communication, information fusion and artificial intelligence technology, the technology restrained the development of UAV problem will be solved one by one.

The UAV and UCAV are accelerating, as an indispensable weapon in integrated battlefield. The UAV and UCAV-the future three-dimensional battlefield generalists and fighting capacity of multiplier, will unveil a new chapter dominated by the long-distance intelligent attacking weapons and informationization of non-contact war.

In many ways, there is little difference between a “smart bomb” and a drone besides purpose, and those lines are becoming increasingly blurred with the advent of disposable drones.

Defence forces are looking for a concept such as “arsenal plane”, the idea of a plane that fired off “off-board sensors”-disposable drones with sensors-and attack drones that would allow the human-controlled plane more security and standoff range.

Currently several drones are being used or designed for “off-board sensor” use, including Coyote UAVs for P-3 Orions used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for hurricane hunting, sub-hunting drones that allow Naval planes to avoid flying dangerously low when hunting for underwater threats, and a drone launched from a AC-130 Gunship to allow the flying gun platform to better function during cloud cover. Some of these can also be modified to carry payloads and become smart bombs in their own right, such as uVision, an Israel-based defence company, has made a “loitering munition” whose purpose is to fly in the area until targets are confirmed, then plow into them with its warhead.

Concept of unmanned

The flight is either controlled autonomously by computers in the vehicle, or under the remote control of a navigator, or pilot (in military UAVs called a Combat Systems Officer on UCAVs) on the ground or in another vehicle.

There are a wide variety of drone shapes, sizes, configurations, and characteristics. Historically, UAVs were simple remotely piloted aircraft, but autonomous control is increasingly being employed.

Their largest use is within military applications. UAVs are also used in a small but growing number of civil applications, such as firefighting or nonmilitary security work, such as surveillance of pipelines. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too “dull, dirty, or dangerous” for manned aircraft.

With the growing of real needs, the performance and functionality of UAV is continuously growing. First of all, an important development direction is from low short voyage to high-altitude long-endurance. In the second place, the crucial development direction is stealth UAV.

To deal with the increasing of ground air defense firepower, many advanced stealth technology and equipment has been applied to the development of UAV, such as composite material, the radar absorbing material, low noise engine.

Thirdly, the significant development direction is from the real-time tactical reconnaissance direction to airborne early warning. Last but not the least is that a momentous development direction is air combat.

Attack UAV, known as UCAV, is an vital development direction. Ability of the UAV intelligence gathering and battlefield surveillance depends on the development of sensor technology. Strong commonality of UAV sensor is a long-term goal for unmanned aerial vehicle development.

As the demand of the unmanned aerial vehicle been on the rise, the airborne sensor market has gained great development.

Compared with other system, multispectral/hyperspectral like (10~100 multispectral spectrum band, more than 100 hyperspectral spectrum), combined the characteristics of the panchromatic sensor and can obtain fine information from the target image.

It also improves the clutter suppression, detection and target range of high reliability, etc. Synthetic aperture radar is likely to become the main future UAV sensor.

It can pinpoint ground targets, through enhanced software processing algorithms. Its resolution will be able to reach more than 30 cm.

Synthetic aperture radar, based on active phased array technology and conformal antenna, has a good image and moving target indicator capability and can efficiently use space payloads.

It becomes hot research focus. As an auxiliary sensor, it can find those targets who used the bunker or stealth technology.

Development process

The earliest attempt at a powered unmanned aerial vehicle was A M Low’s “Aerial Target” of 1916. Nikola Tesla described a fleet of unmanned aerial combat vehicles in 1915.

A number of remote-controlled airplane advances followed, including the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane, during and after World War I, including the first scale RPV (Remote Piloted Vehicle), developed by the film star and model airplane enthusiast Reginald Denny in 1935.

More were made in the technology rush during World War II; these were used both to train antiaircraft gunners and to fly attack missions.

Jet engines were applied after World War II, in such types as the Teledyne Ryan Firebee I of 1951, while companies like Beechcraft also got in the game with their Model 1001 for the United States Navy in 1955.

Nevertheless, they were little more than remote-controlled airplanes until the Vietnam Era. The birth of US UAVs (called RPVs at the time) began in 1959 when United States Air Force (USAF) officers, concerned about losing pilots over hostile territory, began planning for the use of unmanned flights.

This plan became intensified when Francis Gary Powers and his “secret” U-2 were shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Within days, the highly classified UAV program was launched under the code name of “Red Wagon.” The August 2 and August 4, 1964, clash in the Tonkin Gulf between naval units of the US and North Vietnamese Navy initiated America’s highly classified UAVs into their first combat missions of the Vietnam War.

When the “Red Chinese” showed photographs of downed US UAVs via Wide World Photos, the official US response was, “no comment.” In February 1973, during testimony before the United States House Committee on Appropriations, did the US military officially confirm that they had been utilizing UAVs in Southeast Asia (Vietnam).

While over 5,000 US airmen had been killed and over 1,000 more were either missing in action (MIA), or captured (prisoners of war/POW), the USAF 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing had flown approximately 3,435 UAV missions during the war, at a cost of about 554 UAVs lost to all causes.

In the words of USAF General George S Brown, Commander, Air Force Systems Command in 1972, “The only reason we need (UAVs) is that we don’t want to needlessly expend the man in the cockpit.”

Later that same year, General John C Meyer, Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command, stated, “we let the drone do the high-risk flying ... the loss rate is high, but we are willing to risk more of them ... they save lives!”

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syrian missile batteries in Lebanon caused heavy damage to Israeli fighter jets.

As a result, Israel developed the first modern UAV. Israel pioneered the use of UAVs for real-time surveillance, electronic warfare and decoys.

The images and radar decoying provided by these UAVs helped Israel to completely neutralize the Syrian air defenses at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War, resulting in no pilots downed.

With the maturing and miniaturization of applicable technologies as seen in the 1980s and 1990s, interest in UAVs grew within the higher echelons of the US military.

In the 90s the US Department of Defence began to buy UAVs from Israel. The Navy bought the Pioneer UAV, which is still in use.

Many of these Israeli and newly developed US UAVs were used in the 1991 Gulf War. UAVs were seen to offer the possibility of cheaper, more capable fighting machines that could be used without risk to aircrews.

Early technology

Initial generations were primarily surveillance aircraft, but some were armed (such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, which utilized AGM- 114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles). An armed UAV is known as an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

Unmanned aircraft missions have more than tripled in the last two years, so much so that the Air Force cannot train people fast enough to keep up with the demand.

Until a few years ago unmanned aircrafts were mythical creatures whose existence only few could boast about.

In recent years however, particularly after 9/11 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have evolved tremendously and become fairly common knowledge thanks to the intense media coverage.

The remote controlled plane that started off as an experimental aerial intelligence gopher for the US Army during the Balkan wars in mid 1990s has long since transformed into a full-fledged weapons system.

MQ-1 Predator along with its deadlier brother MQ-9 are remote controlled spy planes that have an overwhelming demand among ground commanders in Iraq, Afghanistan as well as special operations in Pakistan.

At this very moment about a dozen of them are encircling over enemy targets, observing everything in real time and capturing high resolution images such as license plates. Each month commanders, intelligence officers and ground troops benefit from 18,000 hours of live video.

These UAVs track vehicles, scan convoy routes for explosives and of course, fire missiles. Unlike the more conventional jets like F-16, a Predator can remain above a target for 24 hours.

In a combat situation, a ground crew (10 crews for every 24 hour air combat patrol) launches a Predator in for example Iraq, and then hands over the plane via satellite link to a crew in the US at either Creech, one of several Air National Guard bases or at a special-operations unit in New Mexico.

One of two primary monitors shows the video feed from the plane’s cameras overlaid with a head-up display of the horizon, the plane’s altitude and other vitals.

Another screen displays a graphic of the plane overlaying satellite maps of the landscape. There’s a joystick too, but it’s mostly for takeoffs, landings and chasing targets. Typically, drones follow a preprogrammed flight path.

The rise of the Predators has not come without its share of problems. The Air Force’s current strategy to pull combat pilots from their cockpits and retrain them to fly drones is depleting other squadrons and creating a shortage of pilots to fly manned planes.

The education needed for drone pilots is comparable to that of earning a master’s degree and even the best pilots struggle with the learning process.

Of the 200 Predators delivered to date, about one third of them have crashed catastrophically either due to aircraft malfunction or pilot error.

One pilot executed a hard left at high speed (a feat that is routinely done in a manned combat plane) which the snowmobile engine Predator couldn’t handle and it flipped over and spiraled out of control.

Changing situation

Several other operators accidently switched off the engine mid-flight. In one instance an operator even erased the onboard RAM and thus lost all hope of controlling the plane.

Predator UAS series aircraft routinely conduct real-time missions via a pilot and sensor operator that are housed in a Ground Control Station (GCS).

In operation around the world today, the GCS features high mobility and portability, allowing direct control of the UAS and may be located on a land base, in an aircraft, or on a ship anywhere in the world.

A typical GCS consists of two identical Pilot/Payload Operator (PPO) workstations that incorporate control consoles and operator displays, allowing operators to control/monitor the aircraft, payloads, and aircraft subsystems.

PPO workstations are redundant and interoperable with all Predator series aircraft. Multi-function workstations (MFW) support data exploitation and other payloads.

Predator series aircraft are capable of flying missions autonomously under the control of an onboard suite of redundant computers and sensors.

These missions are pre-programmed by operators in the GCS and are initiated by an operator once the aircraft is airborne.

Most missions, however, are flown real-time under the control of the pilot and sensor operator in the GCS. For all missions, the pilot is responsible for landing the aircraft following mission completion.

Communication data links enable GCS operators to uplink control commands and downlink payload imagery and telemetry data from the aircraft. The C-band line-of-sight (LOS) data link allows direct control at ranges up to 150 nautical miles.

Aircraft control can be passed to another GCS. Alternatively, a Ku-band beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) satellite communication (SATCOM) data link enables Predator series aircraft to be controlled from anywhere in the world.

For example, US Air Force MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are routinely operated worldwide from GCS located at a USAF base near Las Vegas, Nevada.

This is accomplished by beaming commands from the GCS to the aircraft via its satellite data link. The aircraft then transmits images and information back to the GCS sensor operator for dissemination.

Currently in development, GA-ASI’s next generation Advanced Cockpit GCS will be equipped with numerous new features designed to improve GCS operator efficiency and increase situational awareness.

It includes 3-D maps, intuitive touch screen technology, ergonomic design, and wrap-around synthetic vision.

GA-ASI also manufactures a Remote Video Terminal (RVT) that provides real-time imagery directly from the aircraft to warfighters in the field, on ships, or in the air.

New role

For Today, most UAV’s are operated off of helicopter pads, or for the larger UCAV’s are designed to be operated off of a carrier. This makes sense, since the field is advancing so rapidly any specific design for handling them would likely be obsolete before it was fielded.

But in the future, UAVs, UCAVs and likely hybrids between UAV’s and single use missiles are likely to become common to nearly every class of combatant.

When that occurs, what likely changes may there be to improve the handling, repair and of course to allow the largest number of Unmanned vehicles to be stored and used by a ship, without impacting too much on other ship functions?

Since aircraft were first used extensively in combat during World War I, fighter pilots have enjoyed public acclaim for their skill and bravery.

But the next generation that flies these jets may not have to risk themselves at all. They may not even have to be pilots. In the future, fighter jets may just require somebody to monitor their operating software, from the safety of the ground.

The next big thing in military aviation is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Based on their performance in Kosovo and Afghanistan, US military leaders are actively pushing for development of the next generation of pilotless aircraft.

The UAVs currently used by the Air Force were originally designed as observation planes, an eye in the sky. But they have also carried a few missiles and bombs.

The UCAVs are intended to be unmanned aircraft that can participate in combat by carrying weapons, or do armed reconnaissance, operating over hostile target areas.

They are the culmination of over 50 years of remotely controlled and self controlled (autonomous) aircraft.

They have some interesting properties, some great aspects and some terribly stupid aspects. Interestingly, few of the features they promote are new, few of their problems a surprise.

Air combat has always been a tough sport-People get killed. UCAV’s are claimed to be the new way to stop pilots from getting killed, at least on the offensive side of things.

Air defence systems are extremely tough to punch through without great risk to the pilots of the attacking aircraft.

In the post-Cold War era there are many countries that have been able to access ex-Soviet technology (and a few that got NATO tech too), to build effective air defense tiers and put the US’s EW boys and girls onto perpetual overtime.

Systems like the E-8 JSTARS make the detection and plotting of these air defenses somewhat easier, but the actual task of taking the defenses out is still a nail biting activity.

HARM missiles, once the scourge of the air defense operator, have been largely made ineffective by operating techniques (switching radar’s off, or only switching them on for very short periods, additionally radar’s can be operated in passive mode, using another transmitters’ output to do its scans) and improvements to the repair side of the operation (radar antennas are relatively mass-less things, and older soviet designs only had metal and simple traveling wave tubes to damage).

To counter this has been a growing emphasis on double strikes, the first disables the radar mast with a Shrike, HARM or similar.

A follow-up operation then drops a real iron bomb on the target, the iron bomb has of recent been mainly laser guided, but one can assume the use of GPS munitions will not be far off.

This second strike can be timed to do most damage, not only to the radar installation, but to the repair crews too.

Air forces the world over have been trying to find ways to penetrate air defense systems with less bloodshed on the attacking side of the equation.

Stealth was a major change in tactics, though even that technology has its limits, as was seen over Yugoslavia.

The loss of highly skilled pilots is politically unsavoury to the US electorate, so means to limit the pilots’ exposure, and prevent such loses, have been under way for many years.

Cruise hangover

When the V1’s first hit Britain in 1944, it was the first use of Cruise missiles. These missiles were fairly good at hitting targets in a known area, they reduced the aggressors exposure to danger and they were the right price.

The Tomahawk and ALCM missiles are the latest versions of these versatile weapons. They can be made to go through the most dangerous air defences while carrying a varied and substantial war load.

Though the most recent versions were not really cheap, cheap, they were MUCH less expensive that stealth fighters.

Of course a cruise missile is on a one way trip to destiny - there is no reuse - so their cost in comparison to traditional fighter bombers (used for multiple missions over 20 or 30 years) is slightly skewed.

Cruise missiles have been given some intelligence, not much, but some. They can be made capable of detecting attack and taking evasive action.

They can be given targeting data right down to the moment of launch. They can even be given multiple targets, such that the first is bombed and the second is hit by the missile itself.

These sorts of usage techniques and experience with reconnaissance drones during the Vietnam war, where drones were used in many roles including the carrying of weapons, has lead to the UCAV concepts we see today. However, there are differences.

One of the other influences in UCAV design has been that of the replacement of the pilot; during the 70’s studies of such self-piloted, autonomous, vehicles were carried out.

The studies showed that a self-piloted vehicle was going to be extremely complex, heavily dependant on computer power, and thus quite expensive.

On top of which was the feeling that the thingsimply would not work-even a minor failure, one not anticipated by the designers or software architects might cause the vehicle to crash.

But one thing that came through was that without a human on the vehicle, it could be made to maneuver at much higher G’s and hence possibly be able to evade most pursuers, possibly even anti- aircraft missiles. The US Air Force is not the only player in this field, the US Navy is heavily involved as are a number of European nations.

The projection of power from a carrier is an important strategic need, and men being shot down while flying Navy fighters is no more acceptable than Air Force pilots being shot down.

However, there was an initial feeling that the needs were vastly different. The Air Force had initially looked at the concept of an unmanned interceptor, the US Navy just wanted a bomber.

The Air Force had to back off its position as it bumped right into the major problem with remotely piloted vehicles: radio or satellite bandwidth.

A fighter was going to need lots of bandwidth to send back its sensor information and any camera imagery that could be generated.

A small fleet of such fighters would swamp all available communications resources. The Air Force and the Navy have begun to look at similar concepts for UCAVs. As strike aircraft they will not need the vast communications resources, but they will still stress what is available.

They will be able to be flown into airspace that is far too dangerous for a piloted vehicle, and lastly they will need to be aircraft that can be reused, not just some throw away cruise missile concept.


Indeed, the engineering technical issues of how to build the UCAV are relatively straight forward, its the computational issues that will play the decisive part.

The new UCAV’s now being shown, will be able to autonomously fly to a target area, take synthetic aperture radar imagery and transmit it back to a base station, have it interpreted, targets finalized and the strikes planned.

This still requires significant communications bandwidth, and also will put a great deal of emphasis on loiter time and stealth capabilities. Can the UCAV’s live up to the needs and the technical challenges?

Operating a UCAV on the other side of the globe is going to require extensive use of satellite communications.

The available bandwidth in this medium is going to severely restrict operations, limiting the number of UCAV’s that can be airborne at any time.

At present most of the military communications bandwidth is consumed, used by the intelligence community just trying to do its job.

It might be possible to compress some of this data, it might also be possible to cause pauses in such traffic to make way for UCAV operations, but without significant improvements in satellite and ground based communications systems UCAV’s will remain a curious military toy.

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.

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.