UAS & Robotics

Why drones could play a more limited role in future conflicts

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles has been a favored tool of the Obama administration in counterterrorism operations across the globe. There are clear benefits to these advanced platforms –near constant surveillance of a target and ability to strike while conducting surveillance operations, all while operators sit safely thousands of miles away. However, there are also clear deficiencies – among them, that their slow speeds make them distinctly susceptible to anti-aircraft capabilities. That might not have been a problem against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but it would be if the adversary is a nation state. 

As the military moves to transition to emerging threats in addition to continued counterterrorism missions, more tools are needed than these seemingly do-it-all devices. “China and Russia, especially Russia, they’re not sitting back,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Linda R. Urrutia-Varhall, assistant deputy chief of Staff, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, said at a recent luncheon hosted by AFCEA NOVA. With regard to Russia’s recent increased activity in Syria, Urrutia-Varhall said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “knocking on the door” to make its military capability presence known. 

Nations such as Russia and China possess significantly advanced military platforms as opposed to the non-state actors the U.S. has faced the last 14 years in the counterterrorism fight. 

Urrutia-Varhall said the anti-access/area denial fight that is emerging, especially with China, is a different fight than what most airmen who were brought up through the counterterrorism fight are used to.  “Eighty percent of our airmen came in after 9/11,” she said. There has been such an intense focus in the last 14 years on high-value terrorist targets that other aspects have been neglected. The Air Force must now adjust to new threats, she said. 

While UAS are good at what they do, they play a larger and more important role in counterterrorism than in state-on-state conflicts, Urrutia-Varhall said, noting that UAS will continue to play a role since the force cannot “walk away from counterterrorism.” 

Regarding electronic warfare, Urrutia-Varhall told Defense Systems after her address “that’s another program that I think we stepped away from.” It’s something that the force ignored for a while, but officials know they need, “especially in the A2/AD fight,” adding that Russia and China are engaged in this domain—and the Russians in particular do it very well. 

Urrutia-Varhall identified another major challenge going forward, separate from those on the battlefield – Congress. The Air Force has a plan of how it wants to run various programs or carryout certain strategies, but often times Congress does not let it play out. A member of Congress will come along and say “not in my district,” she said.

Urrutia-Varhall also referenced the spat with Congress over the manned U-2 high altitude spy plane and the high-altitude, long endurance RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance UAS, in which Congress forced the military’s hand to keep the UAS around over objections that the Global Hawk did not perform as many hoped it would. There are just some capabilities the Global Hawk doesn’t possess, she said, but Congress continually pushed the force to invest in the platform.   

Earlier this year, the Air Force relented, noting that the per-hour flight costs of the Global Hawk had finally dropped below that of the U-2. The lower cost of flying the U-2 had been another reason the Air Force wanted to keep it.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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