Modernising Defence - DEFENCE MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, Issue 55
'The UK lacks a clear strategy for unmanned aerial systems'
Unmanned Aerial Systems have enormous potential, but the MoD lacks an overarching UAS vision, argues RAND Europe Director Dr Matt Bassford
The UK Ministry of Defence is under severe financial pressures. To use the vernacular: the department is flat broke. Reductions are under way in personnel, materiel and equipment. Despite this straitened context however, there is a growing consensus that the size and scope of the UK fleet of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) will continue to expand for the foreseeable future. This is certainly the view espoused by the government in the Strategic Defence and Security Review and by most defence commentators. Industry suppliers view the development of UAS as a new and growing market opportunity in a landscape otherwise dominated by cuts to defence procurement spending – and there are other potential applications in commercial, security and law enforcement roles. While there are great expectations for a continued rise in the role of UAS, there is a distinct lack of strategic vision in this area. But what advantages do UAS bring and what future missions might they deliver? What might be the vision for UAS capability post-Afghanistan? And finally, what are the key issues that must be addressed?
For military operators, the main advantage of UAS to date is that they can replace manned aircraft in those operations or situations often deemed as dull, dirty, dangerous or deep. The persistence of UAS, for example, enables routine surveillance or reconnaissance activities to be conducted for long periods of time without the logistical challenges of pilot fatigue or the dangers of operating in contested theatres. The United States – which clocked up one million UAS flight hours in 2010 – has led the way in the development and operational use of UAS, including the use of Predator drones in strike operations against insurgents. There are clear operational benefits in having Air Force personnel based in Nevada that can remotely operate unmanned systems around remote locations in Afghanistan, search out insurgent groups, and then launch missile strikes. There should also be financial benefits for operator nations in a smaller logistical footprint; a smaller buy-to-deploy ratio; and an increased use of simulators for training. Future battlefield scenarios for UAS include information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR), as delivery or supply mechanisms for forward-deployed bases or humanitarian aid missions, and as medical evacuation vehicles.
Thinking of UAS solely as replacements for manned military aircraft provides only a partial indication of their potential future uses, however. Much of the excitement surrounding UAS development surrounds the myriad missions that future systems may be capable of prosecuting. When used at high altitude, unmanned aircraft may provide satellite communications, WiFi, and mobile phone capability over a large geographical area at a far lesser cost than a comparable satellite system. The development of nano and micro-technologies may be equally significant, for example in the development of 'stop and stare' UAS that could provide new ways of gathering intelligence and surveillance information from complex urban environments. Should these technologies be deployed in swarms they would both be very difficult to defend against, and provide situational awareness and a surveillance picture far beyond what is currently attainable from other systems.
The current MoD approach towards UAS could most charitably be described as one of emergent strategy or one that is opportunity-led. A roadmap for UAS was developed by the MoD in 2005 but has now been very much superseded by a series of urgent operational requirements that has seen the MoD utilise UAS capabilities for a number of roles in Afghanistan. This has been effective in rapid delivery of capability to the front line but has been ad hoc by necessity. In parallel, UK industry has been active in the development of new UAS programmes with other partners. It is expected that Thales UK will begin the delivery of Watchkeeper aircraft to the British Army this year, and that may well be followed by Scavenger, a medium altitude long endurance UAS that will provide both persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and the ability to attack land and maritime targets by the close of the decade. Scavenger is the product of a UK-French collaborative assessment and, while there has been no formal commitment to a joint programme as of yet, will nonetheless enable the sharing of development and costs while enhancing future interoperability. The two countries are further expected to release a roadmap designed to guide their development and acquisition of combat UAS by 2012, which would combine UK efforts on the Taranis technology demonstrator with French work on the nEUROn system.
The legacy of an emergent approach to UAS is not the only issue faced by planners. The challenge of developing a clear vision is further compounded by opacity of ownership. There is currently no single point of accountability for UAS strategy within the MoD. Ownership matters – particularly for enabling systems like UAS that can deliver capability that cuts across the traditional boundaries between army, air force and navy.
Finally, new thinking is required to address the potential moral, legal and regulatory dimensions of UAS operations, particularly with regard to emerging combat roles and increasing autonomy. Creating the conditions for such debate has proved challenging, however, due to the instinctive insularity of defence planners and the sensationalist manner in which these issues are presented in parts of the media. Gaining traction on these emotive issues would need a sound evidence base and a dispassionate dialogue.
The consequence of this patchwork of systems, stakeholders and strategies is a lack of overarching vision and a risk that the UK will miss the fleeting opportunity it currently has to shape the future space. And in addition to military roles there are substantial opportunities to leverage UK investment in UAS for a broad range of other applications.
While military planners and defence suppliers currently drive the bulk of UAS development, there is a significant latent demand in commercial, law enforcement and public safety roles. If this demand could be consolidated there would be major economies of scale. However, the expansion of UAS in these sectors faces significant regulatory hurdles.
Opening up non-segregated airspace to UAS requires significant technological advancements, particularly in regard to sense and avoid capabilities, communications operability, and autonomy. To date, the UK Civilian Aviation Authority has not provided specific platform requirements but the generally accepted view is that UAS flying in civilian airspace would have to meet safety standards equivalent to those in place for manned aircraft. However, the UK is well advanced in this respect, owing in part to the efforts of ASTRAEA, a consortium that is addressing the technological and regulatory issues involved in opening the UK's airspace to UAS. In order to remove one of the main barriers to the opening of non-segregated airspace, the consortium is working to develop suitable sense and avoid systems for UAS and has recently begun a flight testing programme.
What is needed then is a government strategy that charts a course for the future. One that articulates a set of requirements that could be delivered through a family of generic UAS platforms fitted with different systems for different roles. One that recognises that innovative industrial constructs may be required to tackle the technical issues. And one that acknowledges the emotive issues but creates the conditions for addressing them.
The potential benefits of UAS for defence and more widely are clear. Realising them will require clarity of thinking and an enduring strategy.