- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

Ed Walby made an important trip in the history of unmanned warfare after al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11.

The Air Force colonel and former pilot of the high-altitude U2 spy plane went from Langley Air Force Base, Va., where he developed requirements for surveillance platforms, to Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., where commanders were hurrying an air-war plan to kill Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon was beginning the war on Islamic terrorists by considering hundreds of options for finding and attacking an enemy that lurked in dark places.

The meeting ended with a decision to pull an unmanned spy plane called Global Hawk out of pre-production development and give it a baptism by fire.

Controlled from Germany and launched from the United Arab Emirates, the jet-powered Global Hawk loitered over Afghanistan, then sent back photos of enemy camps, including Osama bin Laden’s last stand at Tora Bora before he slipped away from U.S. troops.

“We could sit on station about 18 hours,” recalls Mr. Walby, who is now retired from the military and works as an executive with Global Hawk producer Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems in El Segundo, Calif. “We could literally hunt down Taliban in a broad-area sweep and pass those targets off to other systems so they could be engaged.”

The campaign that started in Afghanistan in October 2001 marked the beginning of the war against al Qaeda. It also ushered in the age of unmanned warfare.

In the next 20 years, machines will do more of the fighting. The Pentagon will spend $25 billion by 2012 to develop more than 20 air, sea and land systems.

Retired Air Force Col. John Warden, a former fighter pilot, says he thinks the unmanned movement will become more far-reaching than is now envisioned.

“I believe the momentum is building at an extraordinary rate toward the unmanned stuff, and it will be providing the majority of combat platforms within a much shorter time frame than some people would like to see or guess,” Mr. Warden says.

Battle of the future

A battle in 2020 might unfold this way:

Torpedolike submarines prowl coastal waters, hunting mines, collecting intelligence and sinking enemy ships. Unmanned tactical jets penetrate enemy air space to destroy air defenses. On land, soldiers and Marines launch kite-size drones to spy over the next hill. A family of unmanned ground vehicles shoots down airplanes and navigates enemy-infested cities to clear buildings. Back at base, technicians deploy hundreds of speck-size drones to spy on the enemy.

“What we’re doing with unmanned ground and air vehicles is really bringing movies like ‘Star Wars’ … to reality,” says Brig. Gen. Jeff Sorenson, the Army’s deputy for acquisition and systems management.

The overall aim is to reduce American casualties by allowing machines to spy and fight. But Pentagon officials warn that the public’s expectations for unmanned warfare far exceeds what actually is planned.

Thomas H. Killion, a senior Army weapons scientist, says the public may get the idea of soldiers as gadgets from TV commercials, such as one featuring Honda’s man-size robot, Asimo. But Mr. Killion notes that the robot uses a huge amount of power supplied by a thick electric cord, a tether not compatible with doing the mobile job of a soldier.

“A large part of the mission is dealing with people,” he says. “Yes, the robot can help you do some parts of your task … but when it comes down to it, the soldier has to come in and decide what happens next.”

Navy officials plan to field robotic tactical aircraft in the next decade. But their role will be limited to support, and not as a replacement for strike and air-to-air combat pilots.

“We found the manned and unmanned systems provide a good mix to perform the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions,” says Rear Adm. Andy Winns, deputy for naval aviation requirements at the Pentagon.

‘Shifting the balance’

How far the unmanned movement goes depends on the skill and imagination of engineers, and the willingness of admirals and generals to surrender more of the fight to unmanned vehicles.

Another question is whether the skies over a battlefield will have enough room for each service’s appetite for different kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Gen. John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, told a symposium at the Heritage Foundation in April that there are now 750 UAVs operating in Iraq.

“We’ve already had two midair collisions between UAVs and other airplanes. We have got to get our arms around this thing,” Gen. Jumper said, according to United Press International. Some inside the Pentagon say it is time to appoint an executive agency, perhaps the Air Force, to run all UAV programs to ensure there is no duplication or excess production.

The unmanned movement clearly has the attention of military leaders, right up to the commander in chief.

“We’re working to develop more unmanned vehicles in space and on land, in air and at sea,” President Bush declared last June in a speech on the war on terror.

Two years earlier, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, declared, “As we change investment priorities, we have to begin shifting the balance in our arsenal between manned and unmanned capabilities.”

In the field

In the 3-year war on terror, the military has introduced a handful of systems that engineers say will only get better with time.

When commanders realized they were encountering a new threat in Iraq — improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — the Navy quickly deployed IRobot Corp’s PackBot EOD (explosive ordnance disposal). The portable robot — a claw and camera on a small, tracked vehicle — is being used by the scores to inspect and disarm IEDs.

The Air Force Predator, a 27-foot-long unmanned aerial vehicle used for soda-straw views of the battlefield, became the first robotic strike airplane after engineers affixed it with Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The Predator also acted as a precision bomber that, for example, was used to take out Baghdad’s main television transmitter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In that war, the Navy called upon an unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) to scour the channel leading to Iraq’s main port at Umm Qasr. Before, divers had to use a hit-and-miss system to find and defuse mines. This time, the UUV called REMUS, or Remote Environmental Measuring Units, found and charted suspicious objects.

One Army platoon in Afghanistan is thankful for the Raven, a small UAV that proved to be a life-saver one day in 2002 as soldiers hunted al Qaeda and Taliban in the rugged, mountainous country.

Raven is a relatively tiny bird at 4 feet long. But it can stay aloft for more than a hour, sending a video of what’s up ahead. On this day, Raven spotted a large group of enemy troops on both sides of a pass waiting to ambush the Americans.

The picture was so clear that the soldiers knew they faced an overwhelming force. Instead of a direct conflict, they quickly called in air strikes and pinpointed the terrorist positions to pilots overhead.

“They essentially saved a bunch of lives,” Gen. Sorenson says in discussing one of four UAVs in the Army inventory.

Revolution in the sky

The war on terror is providing a glimpse of the military’s future, but the transformation will have limits. Huge surface ships and submarines still will need crews to operate highly sophisticated weapons systems, Navy officials say. For the foreseeable future, soldiers and Marines will be needed to take and hold territory.

Where the revolution promises to reach the highest is in the skies. The Predator has shown how an aircraft can be controlled remotely thousands of miles from the war theater and can unleash precision strikes without putting a human pilot at risk.

The crown jewel of this movement is the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System, or J-UCAS — a family of tactical fighters, bombers and spy planes. The aircraft would be programmed to fly a specific profile, a mission that could be updated in-flight by “pilots” controlling the joystick in the next country — or continent.

The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now turning J-UCAS development over to the Navy and Air Force, an important bureaucratic transition toward starting a production line some day. The first deployed J-UCAS air wing is still at least seven years away.

The forward-thinking Mr. Warden sees a sky crowded with UAVs, both big and small.

“We can make them smaller and smarter,” says Mr. Warden, who has advised DARPA on the J-UCAS project. “With the nanotech stuff, you will end up with UAVs that are extraordinarily small — bumblebee-size. Those might be reconnaissance things that fly into somebody’s room or fly into a barrel of a gun so when somebody tries to shoot, it doesn’t shoot well.”

Asked about the future of manned air combat, the former fighter pilot says: “Pilots could conceivably disappear. The Army doesn’t play a lot of polo anymore. The horsemen just disappeared over a period of time.”

History-making drone

In America’s burgeoning unmanned arsenal, no system has proven more valuable than Global Hawk, according to military sources. A senior Air Force commander during the Iraq war credited the spy drone with quickening the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard divisions and thus condensing a potentially long war into two months.

While the Predator garnered most headlines, the workhorse Global Hawk did what no other spy aircraft had ever done. The U2 could spend about six hours over targets. The Global Hawk loitered at 60,000 feet for 18 hours or more, sending air commanders reams of still images of enemy formations.

The 44-foot-long vehicle led to the creation of a secure computer chat room between its operators in Germany and those who guided the Predator at CIA headquarters in Langley.

With its broad view, Global Hawk saw encampments and enemy movements. The Predator operators picked up the information in the chat room and guided the Predator to the exact location to unleash its 100-pound Hellfire missile.

Two of the developmental Global Hawks crashed in Afghanistan. But the plane worked so well, Gen. Tommy Franks made sure he had one of the few remaining drones on station for the invasion of Iraq.

“It was kind of the opposite of Afghanistan,” Mr. Walby says. “It was a target-rich environment with a whole lot of people around.”

Global Hawk came in particularly handy during a lull in fighting in late March 2003. A blinding sandstorm temporarily bogged down the advancing Army and Marines. The Iraqis used the occasion to move the Republican Guard’s Medina Division toward the Marines southeast of Baghdad.

Joint Stars, a manned, radar aircraft that surveils the ground, picked up the Iraqi troops and passed the data on to Global Hawk operators.

Global Hawk’s sensors captured the enemy and passed the information on to Air Force combat headquarters in Saudi Arabia, which relayed the information to attack jets.

“In a little over an eight-hour period, Global Hawk was responsible for assisting in the systematic destruction of the Medina Guard,” Mr. Walby says. “To be able to chat real time and attack targets using the flexibility of the system, we had never done that before.”

Protecting ports

In early April 2003, Gen. Franks, who commanded the coalition strike on Iraq, had two main objectives: the fall of Baghdad and the opening of Iraq’s only port at Umm Qasr. If the military takeover was to work, the newly liberated Iraqis needed ship-borne supplies of food, water and clothing — fast.

One of the main obstacles was ensuring the 40-foot Khawr Abd Allah channel was free of mines. The operation made history as Naval Special Clearance Team One deployed the Navy’s first operational UUV, the torpedolike REMUS.

The Navy diver team sent REMUS up and down the channel, where it captured images with its side-looking sonar. The sailors downloaded the images from REMUS, pinpointed suspicious objects and sent divers to the spot to investigate.

Without REMUS, a project that took several days could have taken weeks.

“When we went into Desert Storm, we had zero capability to clear mines in shallow water,” says Cmdr. Scott Stuart of the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington. “We’ve improved that tremendously.”

REMUS’ debut is just the beginning of a new era in undersea robots.

Before the end of this decade, the Navy hopes to deploy small Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) that would launch UUVs for mine sweeps and other missions.

But there are limits. The vast oceans will still be patrolled by manned surface vessels and submarines — the so-called “Blue Water” Navy.

“We’re going need sailors,” says Capt. Paul D. Ims Jr., a former ballistic-missile submarine commander who is manager of the unmanned undersea vehicles programs office at NavSea. “The systems, as smart as we’re making them, you’re still got to have the warfighters. … What we’re talking about here is augmentation.”

Force of the future

Robotic systems will play an even larger role in war planning if Congress endorses the Army’s next-generation, $100 billion armada of weapons, the Future Combat System (FCS).

The FCS is the Army’s invasion force of the next decade, a network of manned and unmanned vehicles tied together in a digital communications net that relies on air and ground robotic systems to provide intelligence and do a limited amount of fighting.

An unmanned helicopter, the Fire Scout, would have sufficient payload to launch strikes during six-hour missions. Also in the works is a backpack drone, which a soldier could deploy to a rooftop. There, it would sit unnoticed, sending back live video.

On the ground, soldiers would carry small robots to throw out into a minefield, where they would methodically search for explosives. Five-ton unmanned vehicles would clear the field. A 12-ton armored vehicle would be used to complement tanks.

The systems will augment, not replace, manned tanks and armored personnel carriers.

“I have seen stories that we’re trying to replace soldiers with robots,” said Daniel Pierson, a director in the FCS program. “That’s not the vision of this program.”

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