Editor's note

Unmanned vehicles break ranks

The rapid evolution of unmanned vehicles — in the air and on the ground — is unleashing a new era of technical capabilities and tactical options for the Defense Department. Not surprisingly, it’s also raising a series of new questions and challenges.

There is little question that the use of unmanned vehicles and related systems to support warfighting efforts has increased exponentially during the past decade.

DOD data shows that unmanned aerial vehicles logged a tenfold increase in flight hours in fiscal 2008 compared with the number of hours flown in fiscal 2003. Perhaps more significant: The Army's UAVs now log as much time in the sky as the Air Force's.

As contributing editor David Carr makes clear in this month’s special report, the diversity of UAVs has grown significantly in recent years, as has the scope of their missions. The aircraft are no longer merely instruments of reconnaissance or platforms for remote-controlled weapons systems. They often serve as essential communications nodes and relay links in a great wireless mesh of networked systems, dedicated to supporting mobile warfighters.

But of equal note is that UAVs require less human intervention. That is having a dramatic impact on the traditional roles of pilots and military specialists charged with operating the UAVs.

New technologies, of course, uneasily bump against long-held traditions in military matters. However, the notion that someone other than a highly trained pilot can operate military aircraft has proven particularly unsettling to many in the Air Force. At the same time, it has opened the door to a host of new possibilities for the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

The expansion of such technologies is placing new and significant demands on DOD for qualified operators, network specialists capable of supporting UAVs, and analysts who can manage vast amounts.

And that doesn't consider a number of other challenges that DOD won’t solve easily or inexpensively. For example, radio spectrum remains a finite and precious resource. And the military continues to face serious bandwidth constraints, rivaled perhaps only by even greater constraints on spending.

Nevertheless, this new era of unmanned vehicles is redefining the nature of warfighting. That’s prompting more than a few military experts to begin contemplating the day when UAVs and robotic vehicles will be capable of detecting enemy targets and taking potentially lethal actions autonomously. Few believe DOD will let it come to that. But that day no longer appears so far away.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of Defense Systems from January 2009 to August 2010. He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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