Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have transformed modern warfare. The military is concerned about the potential ability of adversaries to shoot down our UAS’s. One of the two principal reasons for employing UAS’s is that they can go in harm’s way without putting lives at risk (the other is their endurance). The smaller or tactical UAS’s fly so low that even gunfire could knock them down. They rely on their small size and relative silence to remain undetected and untargetable. Boeing’s Scan Eagle is reported to be so quiet that it is able to hover just above the heads of insurgents without being detected. The large, long endurance UAS’s such as the Predator, Shadow and Global Hawk fly too high to be attacked with small arms. However, because of their size and relatively slow speeds they are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles and hostile aircraft. So far, the U.S. military has been fortunate in facing only adversaries without the weapons or detection and tracking technologies to counter our UAS’s. But that will not always be the case.
The Air Force is not waiting to have its UAS’s shot out of the skies. There are reports that the Air Force is testing a new, “stealthy” UAS over Afghanistan. Built by the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the RQ-170 is said to be about the size and weight of the Predators which are currently deployed widely in Southeast Asia. Exploiting some 30 years of experience in stealth coatings, composite materials and aerodynamic shaping, the RQ-170 is said to look like a smaller version of the B-2, a flying wing without sharp angles that can reflect radar energy. It is also reported to be powered by jet engines which should allow it to fly faster and operate at higher altitudes than the current Predator UAS.
Why is the RQ-170 flying in Afghanistan since the Taliban lacks the ability to target non-stealthy UAS’s? The obvious reason is that Afghanistan is where we’re fighting today, and while the RQ-170 is more capable than the situation requires, this is still a good opportunity to test it out. Another, related reason might be to avoid the possibility of detection by Pakistani air surveillance radars. Although the government in Islamabad is our ally in the fight against the Taliban, some within the Pakistani military are believed to be assisting the insurgents. One way they can do so is by warning when our UAS’s are operating in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. If these “double agents” can’t see the RQ-170, they can’t warn their friends.
However, the real role for a stealthy UAS is to defeat advanced air defense systems. The first value of an undetectable UAS is that the target may not know it is in their airspace. As a result, they might not take measures to conceal activities they wish to hide from the United States. But second, even if the target knows that the UAS is overhead it will not be able to attack it. Our current fleet of stealthy aircraft, the B-2 and the F-22, can be detected by some radar systems. Because anti-aircraft missiles require precise location information in order to lock-on to their target, these aircraft are much more difficult to actually attack. So a stealthy, jet-powered UAS makes a lot of sense if the military is anticipating having to defeat advanced air defense systems.
There are lots of missions for non-stealthy UAS’s such as tactical reconnaissance, maritime domain awareness and even armed strike. In fact, the Marine Corp is currently planning on deploying a rotary wing UAS to provide logistics support for units in Afghanistan. But against countries with advanced air defense capabilities or significant air forces, stealthy UAS’s will be necessary.
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