Although the fashionable consensus in Washington is that drones will replace manned aircraft in future conflicts, that isn’t necessarily the way warfighters see it. When the Air Force had to make a choice between its vintage U-2S Dragon Lady spy plane and the futuristic Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft two years ago, it decided U-2 was the better bargain. True, the drone had much greater range and endurance, but in most other performance parameters U-2 looked superior. It flies higher so its sensors see further. It can carry 67% more payload, and has twice as much internal space. In addition, its on-board generators produce much more electricity, so the U-2 can run its diverse sensors simultaneously and collect many different types of intelligence. Unlike manned aircraft, the drone’s ability to operate in bad weather is severely limited; it is much more susceptible to jamming or cyber attacks; and it lacks an ability to sense and avoid other aircraft. So drones aren’t necessarily the right answer to all military missions requiring an airborne system. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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