Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Army Nifty Toys - someday

I've an acquaintance who is totally convinced that UAVs will come to dominate the modern battlefield with every squad, platoon, and up through theater flying stacks upon stacks of these things.

I said when I started this, "Maybe, but not in the forseeable future. I'm going to hit this in two places for the debunk." Now I say, "Well, yes and no." Let me take two variations, one that shows the no, and then the yes.

For the first one, let's take that squad or even platoon UAV. Pretty much everyone agrees that this is going to be an eyes only system - no weapons. I'll be getting to weapons in the next system so let's agree with this assumption for now. The idea is that it's a backpack system, swiftly and easily deployable and usable, and in use pretty much any time the squad leader or platoon leader (or maybe even company commander) has the hint of an idea that it might be necessary right now. So, what've we got right now for examples of what we might be getting.

We have two systems worth a good hard look as baseline examples. System one is already out there - it's the RQ-11 Raven, a reduced size Pointer. The bird itself is a mere 8 pounds with sensor onboard, with a 4 foot wingspan and a bit less than 3 feet in length. The sensor can be one of low-light camera, thermal camera, or color camera, and the feedback is realtime. The bird allegedly breaks down for transport and can be field assembled in five minutes. Broken down, the bird fits in a container that's not too different from the tube of a Dragon anti-tank missile. The sensor packages are in a hard container of about the size and weight of the one for the controller of the Dragon, and the actual controller for the Raven is another box of about the same size and weight. The second system is out as prototype - the Black Widow. This one's lighter - less than a pound. Right now it's only got a color camera with live feed. It doesn't break down, and it's not too far off to use a legal pad for dimensions (actually 9x13 instead of 8.5x11) - better, use a box that held a ream of legal size paper to get the depth. Now to start through the problems before we go to the second system. To carry it in the field you don't need to have a Dragon tube, but you do need a box that's larger than the bird and reinforced to protect it from the bangs of transport in a rucksack. Picture an attorney's slimline briefcase for a pretty good idea, stuck in the rucksack with everything else.

Problem one - which is pretty constant for all the mini and micro devices - is that you lose a bird every three or so flights. Most of the time it's due to a rough landing, and teams using the Raven's big brother (the Pointer) are able to patch the bird about half time with glue and tape. So you lose a bird for good every sixth flight. The Black Widow doesn't repair as easily due to all the controls in the flying wing - a break pretty well finishes it.

Problem two - the bird's flight duration is around an hour. Now if you're just wanting a quick look then pack it up to move on, that's no big deal. But recall one of our standards was "any time the commander has the hint of an idea that it might be necessary right now." Reality check - if the unit is on the advance, they could meet the enemy most any time. And if they're in defensive positions they watch almost all the time as well - surprise is good only if it's the other guy surprised. So we need to be able to rotate birds regularly. Minimally, we need at least two birds, and given breakage each squad has to carry three birds (more if they're black widows) - though only one controller and camera set is absolutely necessary. The problem is that you have to ask yourself what the squad gives up for this carry. That's three anti-tank weapons not carried plus another 12 or so pounds of load (excluding the cubage) removed. The modern US infantryman is plagued by the same thing infantrymen have suffered for years - you carry as much as you can because when you need it you need it NOW. Take something away and the space will only be filled with a replacement. And add something you insist they carry and something else has to leave. Oh, related to the duration and refuel, you need to pack or be resupplied with the necessary fuel - whether it's batteries or hydrogen pellets or some sort of gasoline, the bird's going to need it to fly next time. Add that to the things that need juggled in the load.

Problem three is a problem at the squad and platoon level but not so much at the company level - the person running the bird isn't doing anything else. It's up for an hour? Great. Which of your soldiers is glued to the screen and control box instead of watching his sector? Of course you could add a person to the squad - which makes him the same sort of target the RTO was in Viet Nam for just about the same reasons. Same rule goes for the platoon.

Problem four is a problem with all the mini and micro devices - they can't stand strong winds. If the wind is gusting more than 15 knots the chance of crashing - not only while landing but just from losing control in flight - goes up significantly. Rain is not your friend either, and let's remember that snow and cold lead to icing on aircraft wings, which has caused many crashes of manned aircraft with trained and experienced pilots aboard.

The lowest level I see these deployed in the common combat arms (vs special forces of one sort or another) is company level. Basically you need a dedicated team carrying and operating several components, supporting your operations just as the medics and RTOs and Fire Support Teams and all that support you. And were it not for the proposed reorganization of US forces that says mech and armor companies will have them, I'd expect it to actually be a battalion asset that's used where necessary. Yes, I meant what you read between the lines - light infantry's UAVs will be battalion not company assets.

Now I said I was going to use another system for the "yes", and I didn't mean the two mini/micro UAVs above. Now it's the other side, in this case the one my acquaintance says is going to put the air force, or at least the combat pilots, out of business. Armed UAVs. The image is every battalion and up having a loitering aircraft with a half-dozen or so precision guided bombs (ala JDAMs) and/or missiles (ala Hellfires), and possibly an inline cannon for strafing attacks.

I think it's pretty much a given that these things need more than an hour - four is minimum, 8 is better, and all day and night is best. They've also got to carry the munitions - a 'mere' 250 pound bomb is that same 250 pounds plus the fuel to get it all in the air. We're talking aircraft that are at least 1000 pounds and well over a dozen feet in length and wingspan. Remember they're carrying bombs, so we really don't want them to crack up while landing, which means we need to have a much better recovery system - an airfield, or really good vertical landing ability. And if you want it to fly again it's almost certainly not going to use parachutes for that vertical landing, not if it's carrying bombs on some sort of release mechanism. Basically, you either need an airfield or you need apache or harrier type systems.

You need all the maintenance crew for these aircraft. One of the things so many people forget is that each bird in the air requires a lot more than just a pilot. You've got mechanics. You've got weapons and fuel handlers. You've got ground crews to get the aircraft out of the way of other aircraft.

At this point, efficiencies of scale start coming in to play. A fuel handler for one aircraft is a bit of a waste - one job, takes, 15 minutes, and that's it. Same - longer time, but the principle's the same - for the aircraft munitions personnel. And I meant multiple because one person is not going to lift a 250 pound (or heavier) bomb into place alone even with bomb jacks. The battalion can't afford a platoon of people who work on one aircraft for 15 minutes or so and then do other things not related to that job. A best compromise at this level is to have a company of personnel flying four aircraft. There may be more aircraft on the ground - these things still crack up, and you need the rotation ability to have aircraft in the air all the time. You also have to expand your supply pipeline. You need more fuel for the aircraft, and since it's going to be aviation gas it's not the same as the diesel going to everyone else. You also need the peculiar munitions for these systems - bombs and missiles. And you shouldn't forget security for this air platoon - a force to keep the bad guys away. They can't really be with the battalion command element (the TOC) as they'd pretty well outnumber them. Worse, the landing and taking off of aircraft that close to the front line gives the other guy a pretty good target for his weapons. No, the best place for a battalion's unit is back (in US Doctrine) with the HHC, which is part of the Brigade's TOC/Supply Depot.

Now this works, though it's not the best (I'll get to best in a minute). But stop and look at what you've got. Four aircraft in the air each with two 250 pound precision guided bombs. And another four to eight aircraft on the ground to run both rotations and cope with the inevitable crackups. Vertical takeoff and landing gives you a fuel burn that makes an Abrams look stingy. If we use the RQ-1 (Predator) as a guideline, we need about $35 million for each control station and another $5 million per aircraft - with 12 aircraft total we've got $200 million spent per battalion. For that same $200 million we could by about 50 M1A2 Abrams fully loaded or three times that many Bradleys.

Or to restate it, to field one of these with a mere four aircraft per battalion would almost double the equipment cost of an armor battalion, and a mech infantry battalion's cost would quadruple. And if we stop there I've rather proven the thing to be a waste on the armed side as well. But...

In the US Army, a reorganization is occurring. One of the interesting elements is the creation of, for lack of a better word, a modular capability. The basic brigade has a couple of line battalions, a cavalry/recon battalion, a headquarters and special services battalion, an artillery battalion, a service and support battalion, and a nominal engineering battalion (cut and pasted into other battalions, but still with headquarters present). There's another basic brigade - the aviation brigade. Transport battalions and attack helicopter battalions are the main part, plus mirrors of much of the rest of the support. But what's key is the principle. The basic brigade (sorry, "Unit of Action") has the 'plugins' to add some aviation battalions from the aviation brigade as the mission requires. And that brings us to the effective use.

Take a nominal attack helicopter battalion/squadron. One overstrength transport company, two companies of attack, two companies of observation, each company with 8 aircraft. Replace each of the attack and observation helicopters with one control console and three Predators (Attack or Recon as appropriate) and you've done a lot of things. For one thing, you've cut the cost significantly. Yep, as expensive as the UAV/console is above, the helicopters are more expensive. With this system you've got pretty close to around-the-clock CAS onhand for the brigade. And that term - CAS (Close Air Support) is the real key. If you've got good CAS at brigade, you don't need it from the Air Force. Which means the Air Force gets to (snort) surrender that money to the Army and gets to focus more completely on air superiority. Well, and bombers, transport craft, and missiles, but at least they get out of the mud.

For what it's worth, I think the high altitude bombers will be the next to go UAV, but they'll stay as Air Force property. The important thing about them is that they carry a lot of payload which can potentially be dribbled out. By being unmanned they can either be a bit smaller or they can stay on station longer - or both. Due to their size they'll need good airfields - not typically something you find in the warzone at the brigade level of control.

Also, while fighter may eventually go, I don't think that point will happen near as fast. This doesn't mean there won't be anti-aircraft UAVs developed, but at this point the advantages of kinesthetic cues and lack of transmission lag make up for the limit on G-loads. The pilot wins for a while. All the time? no, but often enough to justify the cost. (There are other good reasons for a man on the spot to make the decision, but I'll leave that for another time.)

One last point before I go. Smart guidance systems are being placed on smaller and smaller munitions, but eventually there's a point of diminishing returns. Sure, we can probably eventually put a GPS guidance on a bullet carried by a Wasp. But what's the gain? I suspect that the smallest you'll see for an anti-infantry non-disposable UAV is no less than the Pointer, and probably somewhat heavier. If it's antivehicle, well, I can't see a 3 ounce bullet making any difference.

I started this meander as a debunk of the whole concept of UAVs at every level stacked to the skies. I convinced myself that it's got some resonance, some truth. We'll probably wind up seeing a lot more aircraft in the skies, controlled by forces a lot lower than theater command. Just not as extreme as my acquaintance believes.


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