Unmanned aircraft are a growing field right now. You can get civilian models that will fly across the ocean and track whales. But the military applications, coming fast, are where serious change is going to occur. In fact, we’re going to see a very different military because of them. Take Dragon Eye, for example.
Dragon Eye, being developed by the Office of Naval Research for the Marine Corps, is an electrically powered, remotely controlled, 4.4-pound reconnaissance airplane that can fit in a backpack. It can stay in the air for about an hour, fly 500 feet above the ground, and carry video cameras. It’s launched by hand. It has Global Positioning System guidance. According to Global Security, troops can assemble it in 10 minutes. It can fly search patterns autonomously, and the video it sends back to the user can be recorded.
It’s more engineering than cutting-edge technology. You can buy a GPS set from L.L. Bean, little airplanes are hardly new, and Circuit City has all manner of video cameras. But put them together, and wars get real different.
In the past, if Marines wanted to know what was on the other side of the hill, they had to go look. It was a good way to get killed. In theory, manned reconnaissance aircraft could help them. In practice, manned craft were too few and too busy to worry about scouting for small units. Fixed-wing craft were too fast to do a good job, and helicopters doing low-and-slow scouting tended to get shot down.
But now the Marines stop on the safe side of the hill and send Dragon Eye. A machine that small is real hard to see, even if you know it’s coming. Since it’s electrically powered, it doesn’t make noise, making it less likely to be noticed.
Dragon Eye isn’t excessively expensive or sophisticated. As Global Security puts it, it is “the latest in a collection of uncomplicated, high-tech, autonomous tools that are being developed for ground forces.”
Autonomous and remotely controlled aren’t the same thing. An autonomous craft can find its way to where its going and do whatever its job is without supervision. Modern versions can do both.
Dragon Eye isn’t armed. It just looks at things. But other remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) are indeed armed — for example, the Predator, which fires Hellfire missiles. Here is where RPVs become important. As long as the data link can be maintained, the craft can be flown from anywhere. If the RPV has a satellite uplink, as some do, an RPV attacking targets in Afghanistan can be flown from Alabama, or from an aircraft carrier.
This could be psychologically devastating for an enemy. He can shoot back at an RPV, and maybe even hit one occasionally. But he knows it is just a machine. He can’t hit back at a remote enemy sitting in comfort on a carrier. Yet the RPV can kill real people. This isn’t a minor advantage.
Fighting in cities has historically been bloody. There’s too much cover, too many places to hide. Artillery doesn’t work because buildings get in the way. Tanks are easy targets for rockets fired from above. In the past, troops have had to fight house to house. This means high casualties.
The new breed of unmanned vehicles — aircraft, or things like tanks, also being developed — offer the possibility of never giving the enemy a live target. Small RPVs that do the reconnaissance and larger ones carrying serious weapons are comparatively cheap.
People once asked, “What if they held a war and nobody came?” We’re getting there, sort of.