Title: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: A Brief Look At The United States UAV-RPA Strategic Vision
Authors: Raul Colon
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I. Historical References

During the past fifty years, the United States Armed Forces had tested and deployed a number of Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPA) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) platforms with various degrees of success. The first major developmental UAV program by the US Air Force was the Lightning Bug System. The system was developed for the Air Force to be operated as a target drone platform. It eventually found its way to the skies over Vietnam as a reconnaissance platform. The Bug flew almost 3,500 mission sorties during that conflict. In the late 1960s and early 70s, the Air Force commenced and terminated several other UAV and RPA programs. Such programs suffered by a lack of strategic vision, focus on what the UAV can accomplish and what it was incapable of doing at the time, produced a strategic stalemate. Major cost overruns also caused promising programs, such as the D21 Tagboard-Senior Bowl Program and Compass Arrow, to be curtailed prematurely. Other factors contributed to the nearly termination of all of the United States UAV programs during the 1970s. The emerging of a more reliable information-gathering satellite system halted the momentum gained during the Lighting Bug program. During that decade, a massive US foreign policy shift in its relation toward China and a new détente policy against the Soviet Union, made the UAV planned main mission, deep incursion into China and the USSR with the aim of gathering as much information as possible, a non starter for the time’s political leaders.

With the end of the Vietnam War, the US armed forces curtailed to the minimum the use of discretionary funds available for the development of UAV and RPA platforms. During the late 70s and early 80s, the US did not made any major effort towards the design and development of a new series UAV or RPA systems. But the situation dramatically changed when the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) deployed a series of small, unmanned platforms in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon during 1982. In what is still called one of the most carefully planned and executed air plans ever, the IDF utilized the UAV in two different profiles. The first mission assigned the UAV was the gathering of intelligence regarding the Syrians troop positions in the Valley, the second, and the most vital to the IDF, was to use the UAV to activate Syrian’s air defense systems along the Valley, thus allowing Israeli aircrafts to pin them down and destroy them in a quick and massive strike. The US military was closely monitoring the situation in the Bekaa Valley. Immediately after the affair ended, US military planners promptly realized the vast and untapped potential of the UAV and RPA systems. Since the US did not posses at the time any significant UAV platforms in its arsenal, systems such as the successfully Israeli’s Pioneer System; they began the process of buying Pioneers from Israel, while at the same time, investing vast amount of human and financial resources on their own UAV programs. The first of the US next generation UAV was the RQ-1 Predator System A. The System A was a jointly developed platform, a consortium, compromising the Navy and the Army. It was designed to be operated by all branches of the military. But 1996, the Air Force was assigned full operational control over the complete program. The System A made its first operational deployment during the Balkans Crisis in 1996 as an advance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform. Since then, every US armed forces deployment had utilized the Predator System A’s unique characteristics. Between 1996 and the end of 2004, the Predator platform had logged almost 100,000 flight hours, sixty eight percent of them on operational profiles. The next Predator variant to become operational was the MQ-1 System. The MQ-1 is basically a System A platform armed with the AGM-114 “Hellfire” missile for operational threat protection and target engagement. Since its inception into the force, the MQ-1 had been one of the US military most requested platforms. It had performed in all US combat theaters. Next step of the US UAV program was the development of the RQ-4 Global Hawk System. The RQ-1 made its maiden flight in 1998 and since then had logged well over 7,000 flight hours. Most of them taking place on the heavily saturated theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a tailor-made theater for the RQ-4 mission profile. It gave the UAV the opportunity to showcase its ISR assets on a highly fluid environment. The RQ-4 ISR feedback was such that although they flew only five percent of all the operational missions, they accounted for fifty five percent of the target designated pins against the Iraqi air defense network. Other small UAV systems such as the Pointer, Raven and the Force Protection Aerial Surveillance System (FPASS) were deployed in both Afghanistan and later, Iraq. These man-portable, short range platforms were employed mostly to provide the US forces with additional base protection force, reconnaissance and targeting duties.

From Fiscal 1954 to 1999, the US Armed Forces spent the sum of nearly $ 21 billion on the research and development of UAV and RPA platforms, the vast majority of the assigned funds went to the Air Force. Total spending during the period was less than $ 500 million a year. In the decade of the 1990s, the US Department of Defense spent well over $ 3 billion of UAV and RPA development, production and operational profiles. The US is expected to triple that amount before this decade is out. The Air Force is investing massive amount of financial resources upgrading the current UAV and RPA system fleet as well as on the design, development and production of the MQ-9 System and a near-space platforms, which, along with the development of the next generation of small UAV platforms; will augment the Air Force’s larger RPA programs. Because of the massive infusion of funds and personnel into the UAV and RPA programs, and the need to centralize the operations of this new force spectrum, a Joint UAV Center of Excellence (JCOE) was established by the Joint Requirement Oversight Council in July 2005. Based at Creech air Force Base, Indiana Springs, Nevada; the Center primary mission is to optimize the UAV and RPA requirements to meet current and future mission requirements. The Air Force is also expanding its research into Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) and it’s expected to have an operational system by the end of the decade. Others branches had follow the Air Force’s lead. Currently, the US Special Operations Command had increased its funding for UAV systems. The Navy is going ahead with plans to accelerate the development of fixed and rotary winged UAV and RPA for carrier group defense, ISR and later, submarine detection and targeting. The Army and the Marine Corp are also investing on UAV design and development. Overseas, the US had fielded MQ-1 platforms in Italy and Great Britain; and is assisting Germany with the development of the Euro-Haw System. At the same time, the Air Force is exploring the possibility of fielding UAV and RPA systems to patrol the vast Pacific Ocean operational theater.

In addition to military applications for the UAV and RPA, there are several federal agencies looking into the possibility of employing UAV systems. The Home Land Security Agency (HLS) will field a full operation UAV squadron by decade’s end. The HLS is planning to use UAV platforms to patrol common borders, target human and drug smugglers, detect chemical, biological, and radiological components entering the US. NASA also plans to utilize the UAV for weather reconnaissance, environmental data collection and other scientific research purposes. The uses for these platforms are as limited as the technology employed permitted today.

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