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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

The airborne collection of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance has always been peripheral to the United States Air Force’s core strategic-bombing and air-superiority missions. The peripheral status of these missions suggests that the service will modernize its core missions before undertaking their modernization. This status also reduces the likelihood that the military will undertake their system-based modernization. This case, however, violates these expectations since the Defense Department developed endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct theater airborne reconnaissance – a peripheral military mission.

The Air Force, furthermore, adopted these systems, and its units created new operational routines to exploit their capabilities. This paper explores various aspects of UAV development and adoption. Historical Background on Reconnaissance UAVs The Defense Department had developed unmanned aerial vehicles for decades and had thousands of flight hours of experience with reconnaissance UAVs, but the military depended exclusively upon piloted systems to collect theater airborne reconnaissance in January 1990. Technological limitations and organizational biases contributed to the absence of UAVs from the military’s inventory at this time.

To satisfy JROCM 003-90’s demanding requirements, the Defense Department had to surmount these technological challenges and convince hesitant military organizations to adopt unmanned systems. The military initially developed unmanned aircraft, or drones, to practice aerial gunnery. In the 1960s, the Air Force modified target drones to collect airborne reconnaissance. Ryan Aeronautical Company converted its Q-2C Firebee into Lightening Bug remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) in secrecy to conduct reconnaissance missions.

Specially configured DC-130 transport aircraft launched these first reconnaissance RPVs; the air vehicles attained high subsonic speeds at altitudes of over 50,000 feet; and, helicopters typically recovered them. After demonstrating their ability to collect reconnaissance, Lightening Bugs were tasked to conduct operational military missions during the Vietnam War. These relatively new technological systems matured considerably as the military learned valuable wartime lessons about the importance of reconnaissance and the vulnerability of its aircrews.

In particular, the monsoon season’s cloud cover thwarted high-altitude photographic reconnaissance, and lethal enemy air defenses prevented manned systems from collecting images at lower altitudes. Ryan Aeronautical developed a more accurate navigation system to prevent its air vehicles from getting lost at lower altitudes. It also created more reliable automated flight controls so that its air vehicle could avoid flying into undulating terrain. Once Ryan mastered these technological challenges, its RPVs predominantly conducted low-level penetrating reconnaissance missions over Vietnam.

The technical capabilities of RPVs expanded further during their wartime use. Ryan produced about twenty versions of its Lightening Bug RPV during the course of American involvement in hostilities, and these systems flew more than 3,400 reconnaissance missions. RPVs collected both imagery and signals intelligence over China, North Vietnam, and other areas of the Far East presenting hazards to manned aircraft. These systems were dropped from manned aircraft, and rockets launched them from the ground.

To improve the guidance and control of RPVs, systems were equipped with television cameras transmitting signals to an accompanying aircraft in the early 1970s. This innovation improved navigation accuracy and laid the groundwork for the real-time observation of targets. Military leaders supported the use of RPVs while aircrews were threatened over hostile airspace, but this support waned during the post-Vietnam draw-down. Sustaining a peacetime reconnaissance-RPV capability entailed significant expenses since support aircraft, recovery helicopters and many airmen supported these ‘simple’ systems.

The Air Force retired RPVs from active duty, employed them as targets, or placed them in storage due to their relatively poor reliability and the burden of maintaining them in the service’s inventory. Although effective and responsive as low-level penetrating reconnaissance collectors, RPVs were difficult to control and recover. They also could not stay up as long, or fly as far, as manned reconnaissance aircraft. Military requirements to collect reconnaissance remained as these systems were retired, but the Department needed to address the limitations of unmanned vehicles before fielding them again.

The military, in particular, needed to simplify their operations. The Air Force wanted RPVs that could take off, fly, and land autonomously, so that it did not need to field a fleet of launch and recovery support aircraft along with its RPVs. The service therefore initiated the Compass Cope project to replace the U-2 with an autonomous unmanned system. Competition within this program stimulated the further development of RPV technologies. Boeing and Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical received development contracts and produced prototype aircraft within two years to capture a production contract.

Each team’s aircraft demonstrated autonomous flight by navigating a course through preprogrammed waypoints, and the program set an RPV-endurance record of twenty-eight hours aloft. Boeing won the design competition, but the Air Force cancelled the program before they could produce an operational RPV. Although this program addressed range, loiter-time, and flight-control limitations and significantly improved the system’s operational concept (conventional takeoff and landing), these technological improvements were not enough to convince the Air Force to field an operational UAV.

The Air Force’s Compass Cope project in the 1970s and subsequent RPV projects initially overcame range limitations by operating RPVs at higher altitudes. The higher the vehicle flew, the further it could fly from a ground-control station and still maintain a line-of-sight link used to control the vehicle remotely. RPVs conducting low-level penetrating reconnaissance over Vietnam extended their range by maintaining line-of-sight links with airborne controllers. Although this employment concept extended the RPVs range, the use of control aircraft increased the system’s operational complexity and cost.

Once this range-extension approach was rejected, RPVs in the 1970s and 1980s accepted their ground-control station line-of-sight constraint and used geometry and higher flight altitudes to increase their operational range. After the Air Force cancelled its Compass Cope project, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored the further development of these maturing technological systems in secret. Since the US Navy’s surface fleet could be threatened by Soviet Backfire bombers armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, DARPA viewed high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs as a technological means to monitor these threats.

DARPA’s Condor program asked industry to develop a high-altitude UAV that could loiter for a week. The Condor UAV set an altitude record for a piston-powered aircraft in 1989 when it reached a maximum altitude of 67,028 feet and stayed aloft for sixty hours. Like the Compass Cope project before it, the Condor program was cancelled before the Defense Department fielded an operational system. The program, nonetheless, served as an important UAV testbed and demonstrated the technological feasibility of high-altitude endurance UAVs.

By early 1986, the Defense Department acknowledged that reconnaissance UAVs had overcome the technological limitations faced by Vietnam-era UAV systems. With UAV technologies maturing in the 1980s, DARPA began developing a medium-range, low-cost endurance UAV. The Navy, still concerned about an anti-ship cruise-missile threat, joined this DARPA program and added sea-based launch-and-recovery requirements and stressed the system’s targeting capabilities. DARPA commissioned Israeli inventor Abraham Karem’s company, Leading Systems Inc.

(LSI), to design this UAV in December 1984. The resulting Amber UAV had a unique inverted ‘V-tail,’ a pusher propeller, and a long, thin, high-lift wing. In a June 1988 flight demonstration, Amber flew for nearly 40 hours at altitudes exceeding 25,000 feet. Although this medium-altitude system demonstrated remarkable endurance, line-of-sight limitations continued to constrain its operational range. Unfortunately, the Navy abandoned its plans for this UAV before conducting operational trials it had scheduled.

Industry, however, continued to develop this UAV for foreign markets. Although the Air Force retired RPVs from its operational inventory shortly following the Vietnam War, the Defense Department continued to develop these technological systems. Advances in digital electronics, propulsion, and materials science helped these systems mature considerably during the 1980s. Despite significant altitude, endurance and range improvements, UAV performance did not rival manned aircraft with respect to range and endurance.

A Congressional Research Service study comparing manned and unmanned systems in 1993 declared, “UAVs are more dependent upon technologies which are not yet perfected. ” Prototype endurance UAVs had demonstrated many noteworthy capabilities when the services coordinated their long-endurance RSTA requirements at the end of the 1980s, but further development was needed to overcome remaining range and loiter-time limitations. As these technological systems matured and flight reliability increased, UAVs could shift from performing demonstrations to conducting military missions.

Endeavoring to Modernize a Peripheral Military Mission While the Office of the Secretary of Defense formulated a new process to demonstrate the military potential of maturing technologies, the Department also outlined a strategy to satisfy its long-endurance RSTA capability requirements. Since the UAV JPO realized that it could take years to develop a system satisfying the joint mission need statement’s challenging requirements to conduct both standoff and penetrating reconnaissance over extended periods of time, it proposed a tiered approach to develop and field increasingly-capable endurance UAVs in its 1993 UAV Master Plan.

The 1993 UAV Master Plan proposed a three-tiered strategy to develop endurance UAVs. Tier I would deploy to the Balkans quickly to provide urgently-needed reconnaissance. Tier II would develop a Medium Altitude Endurance (MAE) UAV carrying a larger, more useful reconnaissance payload and relieve the Tier I system. Eventually, Tier III would develop a large, ultra-long-range stealthy UAV to satisfy completely the joint-mission-need statement. The JROC endorsed this tiered strategy in July 1993. The long-endurance RSTA requirement remained formidable even though this tiered strategy eased the pressure to develop a Tier III system.

The Department needed a stealthy UAV to conduct long-duration, penetrating reconnaissance reliably, but the AARS program had been cancelled. Concerned about the cost and feasibility of developing a single Tier-III-compliant system, the Defense Department segregated its long-endurance RSTA requirements so that two separate, yet affordable, systems could provide the capabilities it wanted. A Tier II+ system would support long-endurance, broad-area coverage requirements in a low-to-moderate-threat environment.

A complementary Tier III- system would trade some range and endurance to collect vital intelligence from denied airspace. Following this split, the Defense Department’s identified need for a long-endurance RSTA capability had spawned four different endurance-UAV development programs. Tier I: Quick Reaction Capability The UAV Master Plan’s Tier I called for a relatively-small UAV that could loiter for between twenty-four and thirty hours. The department needed an existing UAV for Tier I since it planned to deploy the system to the Balkans by the end of the year.

At the time, General Atomics was marketing a runway-capable version of the Amber UAV, the Gnat 750. This aircraft could carry 132 pounds of payload in its nose section and could fly continuously for over forty hours at 20,000 feet. Since the Gnat 750 met the tier’s flight requirements, the Defense Department designated it the Tier I UAV. In the interest of quickly deploying this system to the Balkans, the Defense Department turned the Tier I program over to the CIA. According to published reports, CIA Director R. James Woolsey Jr.

“pressed hard for control of the initial phase of the endurance UAV program so that the systems could be developed quickly and outside of regular, more ponderous Pentagon acquisition channels. ” Compared to the Defense Department’s budget, CIA funds were considered “unfettered” and the CIA began modifying Gnat 750s to collect reconnaissance in the Balkans while the Defense Department requested funds for the endurance-UAV programs remaining in its stable. Tier II: Medium Altitude Endurance UAV The Defense Department also wanted to develop a more capable Tier II UAV in a few years so that it could relieve deployed Tier I systems.

John M. Deutch, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, articulated the specific requirements for a Tier II UAV in a memo to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition. According to this July 12, 1993 memo, the MAE UAV would need to: • Lift a 400-500 pound payload • Operate at an altitude of 15,000-25,000 feet, • Fly 500 nautical miles, • Remain on station for at least 24 hours, and • Collect imagery meeting specified quality standards. To operate at these ranges, the Tier II system could not rely on line-of-sight communication links between the air vehicle and a ground-control station.

These requirements effectively compelled the program to rely upon satellite communications to shed the line-of-sight range limitations that had previously constrained the use of UAVs. High Altitude Endurance UAVs: Tier II+ and Tier III- While the UAV JPO planned a Tier II demonstration program in the fall of 1993, the Defense Department established the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, and this office assumed responsibility for overseeing and funding the military’s endurance reconnaissance UAV projects. DARO assigned the Tier II+ and Tier III- programs to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency rather than to the UAV JPO.

In truth, DARPA was not solely responsible for these systems’ development. In a unique organizational agreement, DARPA would manage these systems’ initial design and development and the Air Force would conduct their flight demonstrations. DARPA formed a joint HAE UAV program office in its Tactical Technology Office in February 1994. A DARPA program director and two service deputy program directors (Navy and Air Force) led this office staffed by Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel. This program office would develop both the Tier III- and Tier II+ endurance-UAV systems.

The HAE UAV program office kicked off both programs in June 1994 by releasing a draft Request for Proposals for a Tier II+ Phase I competition and issuing a sole source contract to develop the Tier III-system. Although these programs were listed as ACTD candidates when the process was unveiled in April, OSD’s Advanced Technology Directorate soon designated the Tier II+ and Tier III- UAV programs as ACTDs. The MAE UAV Program Plan: The Emergence of Predator By the spring of 1994, the Defense Department and the CIA were busy developing several endurance UAVs to collect reconnaissance.

The CIA had overcome the late 1993 crash of one of its two modified Gnat 750s and sent two UAVs and a manned relay aircraft to Albania. Since the Defense Department created its Tier II MAE UAV program to field a near term capability while future capabilities matured, this program needed to produce results quickly. Its plans and strategies therefore emphasized conspicuous near-term milestones. The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) prompted the UAV JPO to solicit bids as soon as it received program funds, and furthermore, the program’s OSD patrons urged the office to initiate the program within forty days.

The program office structured a thirty-month demonstration calling for initial flights within six months of contract award. The program adopted this aggressive schedule because it assumed that a contractor could modify an available system with little difficulty. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI) won the contract among five competing teams largely due to the perceived maturity of its proposed UAV. Their proposed air vehicle resembled the Gnat 750 being modified for the CIA. Navy Captain Allen Rutherford, the ACTD demonstration manager, considered the Gnat 750 a ‘tried and true’ air vehicle.

He told the media that this ACTD was “buying airplanes that are basically available to us now. ” Design choices made early in the program influenced the operational concept eventually employed by the system. Engineers could optimize the medium-altitude system to sweep large geographic areas or search much smaller areas in detail. The Gulf War highlighted the military’s inability to conduct broad-area reconnaissance, but the security situation in the Balkans was creating a pressing need to distinguish between calibers of artillery and to determine whether small vehicles carried weapons.

This urgency apparently overrode the long-standing military requirement to monitor larger areas, and the Tier II ACTD tailored its system to collect high-resolution, narrow-field-of-view images. Despite the Gnat 750 UAV’s maturity, the Tier II ACTD planned to develop and demonstrate several new reconnaissance-UAV technologies. The program planned to incorporate a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that could image through cloud cover to provide the system with robust all-weather reconnaissance capabilities. It also planned to develop satellite-communication (satcom) links that could shed previous line-of-sight range constraints.

Since these technological capabilities had yet to be integrated into a Gnat 750 air vehicle, they posed a degree of technological risk for this schedule-driven ACTD. The Tier II ACTD program plan, formulated by the UAV JPO and GA-ASI, balanced achievable near-term milestones and the longer-term development and integration of these new technologies. After setting the system’s design shortly after contract award, the team would build three limited capability air vehicles and a ground-control station (GCS). The first UAV would fly within six months.

This UAV would carry an existing electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) imaging sensor and use a C-band line-of-sight communication link between the aircraft and GCS to control the vehicle in flight. The program would develop satcom capabilities and a Tactical Endurance Synthetic Aperture Radar (TESAR) while the limited-capability system established its flightworthiness. By the end of the first year, the contractor planned to deliver four more air vehicles with a second GCS and demonstrate an initial UHF satcom capability.

The system would then support domestic training exercises or actual military operations. Program plans anticipated integrating the TESAR payload and a higher-bandwidth Ku-band satcom system by the end of eighteen months. Air vehicles and ground stations produced early in the program would be retrofitted with these advanced capabilities, and ten enhanced-capability UAVs with three GCSs could support military operations and exercises by the end of the thirty-month demonstration program.

The Navy, at the UAV JPO’s request, awarded GA-ASI a $31. 7 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for ten upgraded Gnat 750 unmanned aerial vehicles. The January 7, 1994 contract award occurred a mere two days before OSD’s targeted forty-day start-up window expired. Shortly thereafter, the winning UAV design was released to the public, and the Gnat 750-45 became known as the Predator.

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