A few years ago, during the early 1990s, we carried a front-page story about a marvelous new military aircraft called the V-22 Osprey. It was being outfitted and tested by a Boeing division in Philadelphia, and the editorial staff of U.S. Tech was invited to take a demonstration flight. We declined the offer, and have never regretted it, given that aircraft's spotted history and safety record. The Osprey, designed mainly for the Marine Corps, has two tilt-rotor engines that allow it to take off and land vertically like a helicopter. When airborne, the engines tilt back to the horizontal and the craft flies like a conventional fixed-wing aircraft. It has seen action in several combat zones, and none have been shot down by enemy fire. But it's still a very unpredictable and very expensive aircraft, and has already killed 30 people in its accidental crashes.
|Walter Salm, Editor|
The F-22 Raptor, hailed as the attack fighter plane of the 21st Century, has likewise suffered from spotted past with various problems, numerous design changes, and a Defense Dept. budget that kept reducing the number of aircraft on order. At a cost of over $150 million per copy, only 187 of the F-22s are now operational. But this costly aircraft has also been beset by problems with its oxygen system, centered around the inflatable vest that was supposed to protect pilots from the excessive G's pulled because of the plane's high-speed maneuverability. Oxygen deprivation became an issue that has now been resolved.
Switching to another DoD program, consider the high cost of today's combat aircraft and of training pilots to fly them, and suddenly there?s the UAV program, like a breath of fresh air. The advent of the UAV and its evolution from strictly observation to becoming a weapons platform, has not only dramatically lowered the cost of operational military aircraft, it also means that the "pilots" are safe from being killed or injured by accidents and enemy anti-aircraft missiles.
As the Predator UAVs cruise over Afghanistan, ground controllers or remote-control "pilots" sit in an air-conditioned containers safely on the ground at an Air Force base half a world away. The training and most ground controllers are lumped together at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamagordo, New Mexico — many thousands of miles away from the action. The link between controller and drone is by satellite.
But that satellite link has its own problems. Because of the distances involved, there is a slight delay in transmitting signals from the cameras on the drone to the TV screens that surround the controller, and then sending the pilot's signals back to the drone. Thus, the pilot's control is not quite in real time. This has caused some serious problems and at least five crashes while landing the drones at Holloman. Pilots must train to compensate for these time differences, which can also make it difficult to hit moving enemy targets with any degree of precision. The good news is that no one was killed or injured in any of those landing crashes, simply because the drones are unmanned. But this technical problem means that it's not only difficult to judge landings, it is also adds difficulty to effectively aim at a target.
Members of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan have already learned to keep moving and zig zag when they hear a drone overhead. Chances are, the drone's Hellfire missiles will miss. The USAF claims to have solved this problem, but wouldn't disclose just how. It seems reasonable to assume that the drone has been outfitted with a computer programmed to fulfill orders effectively without relying 100 percent on ground control.
This scenario is rather scary; a computer would be directing the missiles instead of the ground control pilot. Yet, a form of this technology already exists, and has been used for years to guide cruise missiles to their intended targets — untouched by human hands once they are launched. The cruise missile can be programmed to hit a fixed or a moving target. But how can we be certain that it's the right target? That depends on intelligence gathering, something that the UAV does very well. If it has been determined that the drone has zeroed in on an appropriate target, one or both of its Hellfire missiles can be launched.
There's more good news. The price tag for the General Atomics Predator is $4.03 million, a real bargain when compared with the $150 million cost of an F-22. And while about 20 Predators have been lost while on combat missions, it is believed that most of these losses came from bad weather, icing and other mechanical problems. The newest Predators are now fitted with active de-icing systems, as the total number in service closes in on 400.
No matter how you measure it, the Predator UAV program is an extraordinary bargain. And the pilots, once they get over the fact that they are not in dangerous, heroic roles, and will probably never get a medal, learn to appreciate having a home and family to go to at the end of each work day. After a day of chasing down Al Qaeda terrorists, the pilot can go home and char some steak in the back yard to be enjoyed with his (or her) family. What a way to fight a war!