...but UAVs Can Never Be Licenced to Kill

Issue: 09-2009By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. BhatiaIllustration(s): By 307.jpg

There is general reluctance to bestow on even fully automated UAVs the final Authority to fire on a Target—the computer can pick targets so long as a human being pulls the trigger or vice versa

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft have been around for the last half century or more but played second fiddle to its manned cousin in practically all possible military/civilian roles. It is only recently that these have been aggressively pursued and developed as vital tools for use, especially in military operations. Although the preponderance of unmanned platforms’ development is currently centered on intelligence, it is also true that there are numerous other roles that have been either already incorporated or are in various stages of development, such as, laser designation and range finding, communications, nuclear/biological/chemical and even psychological operations, and a strike capability.

Recent meteoric rise in UAV development highlights its growing importance, triggering a debate on whether these will totally replace manned aircraft in war roles and missions. Relentless pursuance of the UAVs as the platform of choice for future battle lends further credence to the claim. Proponents of UAVs rest their case with the argument that these are cheaper to field than conventional manned aircraft and contribute significantly to drastically lower casualty figures. Adherents of UAVs consider ‘man’ an unnecessary nuisance in the kill chain in the battles of the future.

That said, nudging the ‘man’ completely out of the loop would be carrying things a bit too far. Envisioning future unmanned aircraft systems as stand-alone weapons would not be productive. Further, as cautioned by a growing number of military analysts, it needs to be remembered that weapons are by and large additive—when new weapons emerge, these supplement the arsenals and seldom subtract. For example, today’s soldiers don wearable computers, but they still train to kill with knives and rifle butts. The new F-22 Raptor has super-cruise engines, advanced avionics, sophisticated missiles and stealthy coatings, but it is still armed with a machine gun. It would be a mistake to suppose that new weapons retire their predecessors. New weapons and methods expand the scale of war, these don’t replace it. Therefore, unmanned aircraft need to be developed to integrate with the manned systems and not replace these to fight across the spectrum of conflict.

Technologies no doubt would continue to enhance, equipping the unmanned systems for roles and missions currently being performed by the manned aircraft, especially the ones which come in the category of ‘Dirty, Dull & Dangerous’. That includes intelligence gathering, persistent surveillance and timely reconnaissance; suppression of enemy’s air defence; close air support; battle damage assessment, and so on. However, while unmanned systems can be more gainfully utilised in what may be termed as ‘predictable’ situations, manned aircraft would always be ideal for ‘unplanned’ scenarios or roles such as air superiority/air dominance and counter-air/interdiction—primarily because humans can adapt themselves much better to unpredictable situations in fast changing scenarios. They can also deal better with sick aircraft and elicit better public confidence. (Who ever heard of a passenger opting to fly in a pilot-less aircraft!)