In March of this year, Wired Magazine revealed that an armed drone from the Royal Air Force - controlled from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire - fired ordnance at enemy forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, in support of British troops. It was the first drone strike controlled from British territory, and represents the latest success in the Britain’s ever-emerging Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program.
The successful use of armed drones by British forces is a positive development for the UK for three reasons. First, armed drones are an emerging technology which will play a vital role on the 21st Century battlefield. Second, Britain’s ability to employ armed drones reduces its dependency on the United States to provide the same capability. Third, and most importantly, in an era of dwindling defense spending, drones are an inexpensive - and proven - alternative to manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.
The United States has long been the global leader in armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAVs quickly proved their worth in Iraq and Afghanistan, where their sensors, endurance, and laser-guided missiles gave American forces an edge previously unimaginable. America’s drone capabilities have only continued to improve, both in terms of the quantity and quality of the machines themselves, as well as the people who operate them.
Today, nearly one-third of all US military aircraft are unmanned, with aircraft ranging from the hand-held Raven, to the Global Hawk, whose wingspan rivals that of a C-130 Hercules. The United States even has a handful of drones with stealth capabilities, such as the RQ-170 Sentinel, one of which crashed in Iran. Still, according to recent reports, the accident rates for drones such as the Predator are roughly compatible with those of general aviation aircraft. Perhaps most striking is the US Air Force’s investment in the people who operate these vehicles: in 2011, the US Air Force trained more UAV operators than fighter pilots and bomber pilots combined.
America’s superiority in unmanned flight—especially with armed, Medium-Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) platforms—has greatly benefitted NATO. So much so, unfortunately, that NATO has become overly reliant on American drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
In the aftermath of the bombing campaign in Libya, US officials - including NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis and former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates - chided NATO for their inability to collect intelligence, and process it into targeting data - a capability provided almost wholly by US forces. This sense of frustration over Europe’s inability to field sufficient UAVs has been echoed throughout the ranks within the US military. In a memorandum sent to the Secretary of the US Army, one brigade commander in Afghanistan expressed frustration when British forces were given priority of support from American-owned and -operated UAVs. Britain could indeed rectify this imbalance by acquiring armed drones and training sufficient operators.
Additionally, though America’s commitment to Britain is strong - both through NATO and the so-called “special relationship” - it has, regrettably, not been the most reliable partner. In such instances, British forces may have to call upon the unique capabilities provided by drones, operated by their own forces.
In order to do so, the UK must invest not only in the machines themselves, but also the facilities to operate them, as well as the personnel to maintain them, fly them, and process information into targetable intelligence. Like the US military, Britain must continue to assess its policies regarding training, manning, promotion policies, and even organizational culture for those who work with UAVs.
Most importantly, however, is that armed drones perform many of the same functions as fixed-wing fighter-bombers at a fraction of the cost. For instance, though Britain’s planned F-35 fighter is a stealthy, capable dogfighter, most of the combat British forces have seen in the past decade has taken place in uncontested airspace, rendering these features superfluous—calling into question the F-35’s £124 million price tag. Not to mention, the F-35B has been plagued with design problems, and will not enter service until at least 2019, according to some estimates.
General Atomics’ combat-proven MQ-9 Reaper drone, on the other hand, is a proven design, which can carry over 1700 kg of munitions and loiter for up to 14 hours while fully loaded. For less than £35 million, Britain can acquire four Reapers, plus the ground control stations and satellite links to operate them. Furthermore, forward-deployed drones require a much smaller logistical footprint than their manned counterparts. Indeed, fiscal realities make armed drones an attractive military option, considering the cost of manned aircraft and aircraft carriers.
Drones are not a silver-bullet weapon. The Ministry of Defence has noted that UAVs have critical weaknesses. Drones are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and are easy targets for enemy fighter aircraft; the data links which control them are susceptible to jamming, hacking, and viruses. Yet, despite these weaknesses, drones have been a game-changing weapon for NATO. A continued investment in armed UAVs and operators will help keep Britain’s Armed Forces relevant on the 21st Century battlefield, allow them to contribute to multinational operations more effectively, and provide many of the same capabilities as manned aircraft at a fraction of the cost.
Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator and Iraq War veteran, who has served in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division. His views are his own, and do not reflect those of the US Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter.