UCAVs in future battlefield

Air superiority is an essential military mission, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Air superiority has been an enduring prerequisite to military victory during conflicts in the twenty-first century.  Although control of the air does not itself destroy or defeat the majority of enemy forces, it provides the freedom of action and strategic flexibility that allow other military forces to do so. Air superiority is central to a full range of military capabilities, including power projection of sea and land forces, close air support, interdiction, and freedom of maneuver for ground forces.

The air-superiority fighter has continually adapted to this environment and still plays a key role in modern war.

However, in the face of advanced ground and airborne threats, the air-superiority UCAV will be required to gain and maintain control of the skies effectively and affordably. UCAVs are an emerging technology that has the potential to revolutionize air warfare. However, in the face of advanced ground and airborne threats, the air-superiority UCAV will be required to gain and maintain control of the skies effectively and affordably. UCAVs are an emerging technology that has the potential to revolutionize air warfare.

Traditionally, the major elements of air-superiority strategy are the manned bombers and stand-off weapons. However, manned and stand-off combat systems have their own limitations for deep strike assignments and suppression of enemy air defence. The major advantage with UCAVs is that they are safer than manned systems for close support of ground forces without risking the pilot.

Critical weapon  

United States has been in the fore-front of the UCAV revolution for over a decade and a half. The skies over Afghanistan in the 21st Century saw a new aircraft on the prowl. The Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) carried Hellfire anti-armor air-to-surface missiles to fire at the targets that it detected with an amazing array of sensors. No longer were manned aircraft required to engage and destroy the fleeting targets discovered by reconnaissance aircraft. Additionally, the USAF began modifying Raytheon surface-to-air Stinger missiles to an air-to-air version that can be carried on the Predator to give it a counter air capability against enemy helicopters, cruise missiles, and unmanned aircraft. The relatively cheap and versatile Predator UAV has become America’s newest air-superiority fighter.

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles will be a critical weapon in the precision strike arsenals of a growing number of states, particularly as these states deal with contingencies in urban, maritime or difficult to access areas.

UCAVs have many advantages and provide significant operational benefits. It is a common  argument that unmanned aircraft are better suited to ‘4D’ tasks: the dull, dirty, dangerous and deep. The dull aspect refers repetitive missions or missions that require persistence, and so are better suited to autonomous systems than humans. ‘Dirty’ refers to environments in which there are nuclear, biological and chemical threats. ‘Dangerous’ tasks are those in which there is a high risk to the aircraft and aircrew. ‘Deep’ tasks are those that are beyond the range of current manned aircraft. UCAVs provide highly flexible operational capabilities and so can be used in a range of different roles. There are a number of types of UCAVs, with quite different characteristics, ranging from low-speed armed unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) whose primary role is intelligence gathering, to high speed, stealthy and agile strike UCAVs.

Compared to manned and stand-off weapons, UCAVs are viewed more flexible in time-sensitive target selection and readily expandable in high-risk environments.

Urban environments are challenging to military operators for a number of reasons. Urban terrains are confusing, dense and filled with mazes of streets and alleys that defenders are likely to know better than attackers. Modern cities also are dominated by buildings of varying heights and shapes and tight corners that restrict line-of-site and limit the number of direct fire opportunities for operators that are less familiar with the terrain.  

Finally, urban environments present operators with a challenge of precision. Civilians will be mixing with combatants and operators will be required to be precise in their targeting in order to delimit the collateral damage.

UCAVs will be instrumental in surmounting these considerable challenges. Unmanned systems operating at a range of altitudes above the urban battlefield will be able to provide capabilities that are either too costly or too dangerous for manned systems. UCAV applications in these environments will be refined and tailored to situations where operational commanders can best utilize a given system’s capabilities.

Cost effective

UCAVs have the potential to be more cost-effective than manned aircraft. In general, they are smaller, simpler aircraft, which reduces the design and manufacture costs. In addition, the training, operation and support costs for a UCAV are predicted to be lower than manned aircraft.

The weapons employed from a UCAV are generally conventional air-to-ground guided munitions. In the future, micro-munitions, Directed Energy Weapons and weapons for air-to-aircombat could be used from UCAVs.  

The UCAV concept covers a wide range of systems with many different characteristics. Armed Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) unmanned air vehicles are the first type of UCAV. These UCAVs are primarily used in ISR roles, but are armed to provide lethal effects if required.  Armed ISR UAVs are most suitable for the attack of mobile, time-sensitive, ground targets.

Large, advanced, stealthy UCAVs are a second type of UCAV. These are highly sophisticated systems which are designed to be deep penetrating and stealthy strike aircraft. This type of UCAV can be used to perform long-range bombing campaigns against fixed ground targets. In this role, the UCAV may be used as a cost-effective alternative to piloted bombers. To conduct missions, the UCAV can follow predefined long-range flight paths, planned to avoid air defence assets. In the long-term, this type of UCAV could be used to gain control of the airspace. These systems will be operating in very hostile environments in the quest for air superiority.

Small, agile expendable UCAVs, with airframes similar to large, long-range cruise missiles, are potentially a third type of UCAV. They are of medium speed and agile and would be able to operate at low altitude, even executing terrain-following routes. They are much smaller than other UCAVs, and hard to detect and, unlike a cruise missile, they can be reusable. Small, agile, expendable UCAVs would be suitable for penetrating air defence systems and could deliver small weapons from close-range against an array of ground targets. This system could provide a broad spectrum of operational capabilities, including specialist bombing missions against fixed ground targets, the suppression and destruction of enemy air defence and the attack of time sensitive and mobile ground targets.

UCAVs can be manufactured and operated at a tiny fraction of the cost of manned fighters. UCAVs may also be cheaper because many expensive elements in a modern fighter relate to the pilot. For instance, cockpit glass is an exceedingly expensive item. Ejection seats, life support systems, cockpit avionics and targeting systems and the sheer space, bulk and weight savings all go to make UCAVs significantly cheaper than manned alternatives.

By removing the operator from the weapons delivery system, employment of the vehicle ceases to involve risk to human life. Without the need to build a cockpit capable of enclosing a pilot, the vehicle can be smaller and possess fewer radar emitting edges, lower signature and less reflectivity. A smaller vehicle can yield greater range and endurance and has better survivability. UCAVs can significantly minimize risk, especially in an air campaign against the enemy’s integrated air defence systems and are capable of deep penetration strikes against enemy centres of gravity. Finally, the long loitering ability of UCAVs over a battlespace can mean a persistent presence to rapidly strike targets of opportunity.

Desirable weapons

UCAVs can be classified within two extremes in terms of command and control. The ‘dumb UCAV’ is wholly controlled by a remote human operator via a data link. The other is called the ‘terminator’: a UCAV that is wholly autonomous and able to function independent of human interaction once assigned a target to kill.

Regardless of the command and control methodology of the UCAV, these weapons have become highly desirable given their reusability and the significant cost saving per target destroyed or neutralized.

UCAVs are aerial vehicles that can launch, attack, recover and return to base without onboard aircrew. Some UCAVs are used as imagery sensors for reconnaissance or as a tool for guiding other weapons onto a target. UCAVs represent the air power element of the revolution in military affairs in that they embody an intersection of technological advancement, conceptual innovation and organisational adaptation.

From an economic perspective UCAVs are perceived to represent value for money in that they are cheaper to buy and fleet operations cost less. Given the spiralling expenses of many defence budgets, UCAVs have the potential to allow a military force to field an effective and substantial fighting force without the overheads traditionally associated with manned aircraft and without the risks posed by having combat pilots undertake dangerous missions.

Drones have substantial value for a wide range of military and intelligence purposes tasks. They can be used for reconnaissance purposes and also have the potential to assist in the detection of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, as well as ordinary explosives. Weaponized drones can be used to provide close air support to soldiers engaged in combat, as well as for counter-insurgency operations. While it is clear that drones are advantageous in military settings, there should be improved transparency in targeted strikes and more robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for strikes outside of traditional battlefields.

However, with cheap manufacturing and more easy access to technology many countries have developed unmanned armed drones due to which the chances of misusing this weapon has increased manifold.  Therefore the use of drones in armed conflicts has increased significantly in recent years, raising humanitarian, legal and other concerns.

The use of drones in military operations has become a lightning rod for criticism. The drone strikes are indeed more precise than the bombing technologies. The US drone strikes have grown increasingly controversial in the last few years. Beginning in 2008 the United States began to make more frequent use of strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles. Most controversially, the United States has greatly increased its reliance on drone strikes outside of traditional, territorially-bounded battlegrounds. The public record today shows that the United States has used drones to kill persons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The US drone strikes have killed an estimated 4000 people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The percentage of civilian deaths is unknown, and existing estimates are controversial.

Almost everything about US drone strikes is kept in secrecy. For the most part, the US government does not comment on or acknowledge reported drone strikes that take place outside of “hot” battlefields, and it does not release lists of those targeted or killed.

Legal issues

The essential basic point to make about the legality of this practice is that drones are battlefield weapons; they serve as launch vehicles for delivering bombs and missiles. The US is using drones the same way it uses rocket launchers and bomber aircraft.

The use of drones is no different than use of these other launch vehicles. In other words, drones are weapons for military operations. The use of drones by US is failing the relevant tests of the lawful use of force.

Though US justifies its targeted drone strikes are in compliance with international law, a United Nations investigation has so far identified 33 drone strikes around the world that have resulted in civilian casualties and may have violated international humanitarian law.

The right to life is widely regarded as the ‘supreme right’. Armed drones are not illegal, but as lethal weapons they may be easily abused and lead to unlawful loss of life, if used inappropriately.

If the right to life is to be secured in the use of drones, it is imperative that the limitations posed by international law on the use of lethal force, as for any other lethal weapon, are strictly adhered to and not weakened by broad justifications of drone strikes.

Both States using drones and States on whose territory drones are used have their own obligations to respect international standards and prevent violations.

The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency.

As per the law in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been killed, the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation.

States must be transparent about the development, acquisition and use of armed drones. They must publicly disclose the legal basis for the use of drones, operational responsibility, criteria for targeting, impact (including civilian casualties), and information about alleged violations, investigations and prosecutions.

Drones are not specifically mentioned in weapon treaties or other legal instruments of international humanitarian law. However, the use of any weapon system, including armed drones, in armed conflict situations is clearly subject to the rules of international humanitarian law. This means among other things that, when using drones, parties to a conflict must always distinguish between combatants and civilians and between military objectives and civilian objects. They must take all feasible precautions in order to spare the civilian population and infrastructure, and they must suspend or cancel an attack if the expected incidental harm or damage to civilians or civilian objects would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. Similarly, drones can in no way be used to carry prohibited weapons such as chemical or biological agents.

Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) which governs states engaged in armed conflict seeks to regulate the means and methods of warfare permitted to combatants and protect those who are not, or are no longer participating in the conflict.

Any military use of UCAVs must comply with the basic principles of aerial targeting as established by LOAC. These principles are: discrimination, military necessity, humanity and proportionality.

The major legal dilemma that arises from the introduction of UCAVs is that of the replacement of the decision-making entity-the pilot and/or aircrew. An element of this dilemma is the replacement of a combatant with a non-combatant while the UCAV is in an active combat role. Another issue lies in the complicated legal problem of to whom to assign legal responsibility if a UCAV malfunctions and causes collateral and other damage in violation of LOAC.

Although the operators of remote-controlled weapons systems such as drones may be far from the battlefield, they still run the weapon system, identify the target and fire the missiles. They generally operate under responsible command; therefore, under international humanitarian law, drone operators and their chain of command are accountable for what happens.

The human controller makes the decision to release the weapon based on situational awareness gained from the on-board systems as well as an integrated data link picture of the target. This means that a UCAV cannot autonomously release a weapon without authorization from a ground station operator.

Such issue might increase the risk of conflict between states. As the US is now not only the drone operator, many developing countries have also acquired the technology and are into the successful process of manufacturing drones, the issue becomes more critical.

As unmanned aerial vehicles are the easiest way of ensuring surveillance, they might also create trouble in relations between two countries. The recent tension between India and Pakistan over an alleged ‘spy drone’ issue was a bright example of how the lack of international law for operating UAVs and UCAVs can heighten the tension between states.

As air power has become one of the decisive elements in an armed conflict, UCAVs represent a new frontier in warfighting. These weapons systems add another dimension to the principles of modern air power with their unparalleled flexibility and reach.

But as the use of UCAVs will grow, the global military community needs to establish certain legal mechanism to monitor the activities of such weapons to avoid collateral damage.

As there are specified rules and regulations to operate civil airlines and military aircrafts complying with the international laws, a strong legal framework is the need of the hour to keep an eye on the lawful performance of UCAVs in any battlefield.