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Few new technologies can have so comprehensively changed the military arsenal in recent years as drones.
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles – as they are more properly known – has gone from almost total secrecy to ubiquity and is continuing to grow. The US department of defence operates more than 8,000 UAVs, roughly 40 per cent of its entire air fleet.
In Afghanistan, drones have become central to Nato’s security mission. An estimated one in every four missiles used in air strikes there is fired from an unmanned system. In conflicts such as Syria, drones are in extensive use. Western powers operate an undisclosed number of surveillance missions over Syrian airspace from bases in Turkey, Jordan and Israel.
The way in which militaries think of drones is perhaps at a turning point. After a flurry of interest – and many new prototype designs from contractors – many defence ministries, constrained by both budgets and appetite for interventionism, are making more sober assessments of their future need for UAVs.
“The idea that in five years’ time the whole of the air force is going to be unmanned is wrong,” says Elizabeth Quintana, senior research fellow for air power and technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “There are limitations on what UAV systems can do. How will they perform QRA [quick reaction alert, or scrambling] to escort Russian bears out of airspace, for example.”
Frequently, Ms Quintana points out, pilots, and their judgment, are needed in the air – even looking cockpit to cockpit – and not just on the ground.
As a case in point, planners in the UK are beginning to consider their options for replacing the Typhoon – the Royal Air Force’s principal combat aircraft – when its service runs out in 2030.
Certainly drones are being considered. But they may not end up being the whole part of the picture, according to current thinking among MoD mandarins. Indeed, opting to make drones the mainstay of the RAF’s air power in 2030 would be a peculiar move at a time when the government has committed to investing £15bn in carrier-capable F35 joint strike fighters. Drones do not come cheap. Although they are far from being the preserve of the wealthiest nations only – the Iraqi army, for example, operates a small fleet – at this cutting edge of UAV technology, there are so far only a limited number of players able to afford the huge costs. Developing the most sophisticated drones can require investment and timescales similar to those seen for regular aircraft.
Even producing basic weaponised systems is an expensive – and so far relatively specialist – affair. Of the Pentagon’s vast drone fleet, just 1 per cent are weaponised, reflecting their cost and complexity.
“Lots of people can do cheap systems but when you want more complex ones the costs rise steeply,” says RUSI’s Trevor Taylor, professorial research fellow in defence industries and society.
The very earliest stage prototype costs for the BAE Systems-developed Taranis combat drone have already mounted to £185m. The Northrop Grumman X-47B, meanwhile, designed to be launched from an aircraft carrier, has so far cost $813m in its early prototype stage.
As with other complex military systems in development, drone programmes have become victim to runaway costs that have hampered rollout of some of the newest systems. Germany, for example, cancelled its order for a European version of the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk – to be known as Eurohawk – after costs rose by more than $780m to bring it in line with European airspace regulations.
Amid tightened budgets most militaries have increasingly reverted to existing, basic systems rather than opt for expensive new ones.
Indeed, the potential for a European-developed MALE – medium altitude long-endurance – drone system looks troubled. With a set-up cost for the facilities to manufacture such drones in Europe estimated at $1bn by defence contractors, there is little justification not to turn to existing systems.
“Across Europe there were vanguard programmes being explored that had received government funding,” says Ms Quintana. “But a lot of people began asking why they were trying to make their own systems for $90m when you could buy a [General Atomics] Reaper off the shelf from the US for $30m.”
The clearest example of such thinking came late last year when the French military opted to replace its fleet of EADS-outfitted Harfang drones with Reapers. There was “no alternative” to the cheaper US system, said French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Increasingly, says Ms Quintana, it is a question of: “Either you go to the Israelis for it, or you go to the US – or you don’t go at all.”