A leap in weapons capability


America's military is taking a giant technological leap forward. Not that you'll hear much about it in the mainstream media. The scale of deployment of some of our most potent and promising weapon systems can now be expanded to an almost unlimited extent. A critical bottleneck is being eliminated.

The weapon systems in question are various un—manned aircraft, or drones. The most famous of these is the Predator. Just yesterday, television news featured aerial footage shot by a Predator as it hovered over a group of terrorists driving a truck, getting out and entering a building. Immediately, a missile fired from the drone destroyed the building and the men.

Death from above! These babies are almost silent and invisible. The bad guys haven't got a clue until heaven rains down hellfire upon their heads. It doesn't just get the job done, it sends a message.

Until now, a trained fighter pilot has been required to fly our drones. But Gopinion.com linked me to an article in DefenseTech.org. by editor Noah Shachtman:

General Atomics, maker of the wildly succesful Predator robo—plane, got the $214 million gig to build 48 of the Extended Range Multi—Purpose drones. The first of them should be ready to go by 2008. 132 are planned, all told.

At first I was disappointed at the seemingly small size of the order. But then I read on:

Defense News notes that "unlike Predator, the ERMP will be able to take off and land automatically" —— handing off the trickiest parts of piloting a drone to a computer. Which means that the ERMP can be flown by young enlisted men, instead of by the ex—fighter pilots, who now operate the Predator fleet.

I don't know what it costs these days to train a fighter pilot, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were well above a million dollars. Even if you have a lot of ex—pilots on hand, the total pool of labor is rather limited, and cannot be expanded easily.

America's supply of young men qualified to handle a joystick and target terrorists from above is virtually unlimited. There are probably lots of young men who would pay for the privilege.

I would guess that the key use of the first 48 copies will be to train—up the first generation of enlisted joystick jockeys. Then, they can scale up training and use them in the field.

Keep in mind that the technology here is changing rapidly, so there is no need to buy big production runs. The current Predator can stay aloft less than a day. The new model ERMP can stay up 72 hours. There is no doubt that further advances in materials, microelectronics, nanotechnology. and other rapidly—expanding fields will enable future generations to perform even better.

At just over $4 million per copy, these are very cheap aircraft. As time goes by and the scale expands, that cost figure will plummet. There are already insect—scale experimental micro—aircraft being produced, so the future deployment possibilities are virtually endless.

Thomas Lifson   8 10 05

Steven W. Dugger writes:

Actually, the cost of training a military fighter pilot can be measured in 10's of millions of dollars.  Possibly going into the 100's of millions if counted across the entire career of an aviator.  But the idea that it required a technological leap to allow these aircraft to be flown by enlisted people is incorrect, the Army and Marine Corp have been using enlisted people to fly their drones for years.   The kind of flying a drone does is relatively simple, an average person could be taught to do it in a few weeks.  A kid with experience in RC Model Airplanes and computer flight simulators could probably manage it within a few days (and likely be frustrated at the poor performance of the drones).

The Air Force insistence on using Pilots to control their drones is partly political, and partly do to the need to fly through airspace controlled by the FAA.   When there's a need to coordinate with civilian ground control and/or fly over populated areas (with other aircraft around), then it's best to have a real pilot at the controls.   Still, such a pilot would need no more training then it would take to get a Private Pilots instrument rating.  If the Air Force would implement a program of "Enlisted UAV Pilots" where such training was provided to enlisted people, it would save the US a considerable amount of money.