The evolution of 20th-century warfare has exposed a clear trend toward increasingly precise and lethal means of engaging military objectives.
At the same time, technology has leveraged American warriors, allowing them to do more with less risk to themselves. The next—and perhaps final—great leaps in war technology are before us. The potential exists to completely remove human beings from the systems that find and destroy targets, allowing us to fight cheaper wars without substantially risking our warriors.
Though our leaders hesitate to embrace these technologies, it is clear this is the path we must follow.
A hundred years ago, the only way to reliably destroy a tactical target was to somehow infiltrate a human being with explosives. The advent of more accurate artillery and wireless communications allowed the warrior to leave the weapons miles behind and proceed only to within visual range of the target.
Today it is unnecessary for a person ever to go near the target; it is enough to know where it is. A satellite or distant reconnaissance plane can spot it and send the coordinates to a rocket-boosted artillery round more than a hundred miles away, or a cruise missile more than a thousand miles away, to deliver a warhead to within a few feet.
Air power has seen a similar evolution. In the early days of strategic bombing, it took scores of planes flying directly over a target and dropping thousands of tons of munitions to reliably destroy it. Accuracy for dumb bombs has gradually improved, but the advent of precision munitions has enabled the destruction of a target with a single sortie. More recently, the Air Force has begun to acquire “standoff” weapons that allow pilots to stay well away from their targets.
What about the future?
Recent conflicts demonstrate that, while the United States likes to play global policeman, the public is unwilling to sacrifice American lives in that role. Fortunately, unmanned aerial vehicles and long-range precision missiles are in development that will allow us to dominate an enemy without putting our warriors anywhere near enemy lines. The only remaining question is why leaders are not making this technology a higher priority.
America’s only operational long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is the Predator, yet current supplies of this relatively unremarkable reconnaissance system came nowhere near meeting the frenzied demand for it during the Kosovo conflict.
Combat UAVs have the capacity to fill every role currently handled by manned aircraft—from reconnaissance to Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, air-to-air combat, and bombing—while keeping pilots out of danger.
Plans and prototypes indicate combat UAVs will easily outperform manned equivalents for a fraction of the price. While the Army and Air Force weigh development of more unmanned air systems, the Navy has contemplated replacing its behemoth aircraft carrier battle groups with arsenal ships: stealthy, armored vessels capable of delivering in missiles as much firepower as an aircraft carrier.
Although these technologies are widely acclaimed, acceptance by those in power has been unenthusiastic. Northrop Grumman designed a $500 million arsenal ship requiring a crew of only 50. The Navy decided not to build any, although it recently commissioned a $4.5 billion Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, is building another, and plans to begin a third in 2001. DARPA committed $116 million to pay Boeing for a “demonstration” of UCAV technology. Meanwhile, however, the Air Force has spent close to $20 billion on engineering and manufacturing development of the F-22 air superiority fighter (which will cost at least $100 million per copy to produce). Plans are in motion for a manned Joint Strike Fighter program to cost $1 trillion over the next 35 years.
Clearly UAVs are not a priority; arsenal ships, for the time being, are dead in the water. This is an unfortunate loss for the United States.
From a purely financial perspective, unmanned weapons are less expensive to buy, less expensive to train on and less expensive to use than any of the hardware they replace.
Technology already has demonstrated that you don’t need a man at the scene to put ordnance on target. And as we learned in Kosovo, the political liability of a single American life is high enough to impact the course of a military campaign.
For the price of one B-2, we could buy a hundred UAVs. In the place of one carrier battle group, we could deploy a dozen arsenal ships.
With such compelling numbers, why aren’t the services taking to unmanned alternatives?
We should wonder what is keeping us from realizing the most effective military machine possible, one that would substantially save American money and lives.
David Bookstaber is a Yale graduate and an Air Force lieutenant. He is currently stationed at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.Army Times January 31, 2000