Despite limitations, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles offer a number of advantages, foremost being the capability to join battle without exposing a pilot’s life to danger
The 21st century is poised to witness a profound change in the character of aerial warfare. Initial years of the last century saw the birth and evolution of manned powered flight with military application. However, employment of manned aircraft as platform for aerial warfare was greeted with considerable scepticism as these had been restricted to roles such as reconnaissance and observation. Post World War II, combat capability of manned aircraft has grown enormously and matured further, acquiring greater flexibility, reach, precision and lethality. Today, air power is in a position to play a dominant role in any major conflict and decisively influence its outcome.
But there are signs of change. The Barack Obama administration has indicated that the US “does not need the F-22 Raptor, a Fifth Generation stealth fighter-bomber”. The only Fifth Generation combat aircraft in operational service anywhere in the world today, the F-22 Raptor cost the US government $60 billion (Rs 3,00,000 crore) for the first 187 machines, approximately $350 million (Rs 1,750 crore) a piece. Even with a reduced price tag of $143 million (Rs 715 crore) for aircraft supplied beyond the 187 machines, the most powerful economy in the world still finds it unaffordable. Apart from the affordability factor, a statement from Defence Secretary Robert Gates that “the F-35 fighter now in production may be the last fighter the air force buys that carries a pilot” signals a clear shift in the perspective of the US government on the relevance of the manned aircraft as a combat platform for aerial warfare in the future.
The increasing focus of the US Air Force (USAF) on the unmanned aircraft is clearly enunciated in a recently promulgated document entitled ‘The Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan’. If all goes according to assessments and predictions contained in the document, the USAF could eventually replace every type of manned aircraft in its inventory with sophisticated Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or the Unmanned Aerial Combat Systems (UCAS). The equipment to be phased out from the existing inventory and replaced by the new systems would not only include fighter aircraft but also the long range strategic bombers, transport and the gigantic in-flight refueling aircraft.
Other developments, too, lend credence to this philosophy. This year, for the first time, the USAF will train more officers on remote-controlled aircraft than combat fighters. Students have begun to graduate from USAF weapons school with more knowledge about weapons for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) than for combat aircraft. The pattern of deployment of UAVs in the field tends to reinforce the belief that the future lies with UAS/UCAS. The total number of military drones employed by the US military has increased from 167 in 2001 to 5,500 in 2009. In the course of the last one year, as compared to the number of combat aircraft, the US military deployed twice as many drones. The global UAV market today is estimated to be in the region of $4 billion (Rs 20,000 crore) and the way the demand is growing, it could well reach $7 billion (Rs 35,000 crore) over the next decade.