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Why I’m Not a Drone Hysteric

Drone fever: catch it! RT America, in August:

The US will drop billions on defense spending with the purchasing of 55 Global Hawk drone planes over the next few years. Each of the four dozen-plus spy crafts comes at a price tag of $218 million apiece — ten times the price of the largest armed attack drone.

That’s not quite true; a Global Hawk costs about $35 million when you don’t include development costs. To put it in perspective, a brand new F-35 costs roughly $208 million (.PDF) by the same standard, though Canadians will be paying a discounted rate of $65 million (Canadian). The Global Hawk is also probably far more valuable than the F-35, as it can actually do more. In fact, planes without pilots may make the piloted ones extinct, and I just don’t count that a bad development for American blood or treasure.

A drone solves many of the basic problems of combat aviation: a piloted plane can only be in the air for so long before the pilot’s diaper is full, his food and water exhausted, and his body physically in need of rest. If shot down or crashed, a pilot puts more American lives at risk in attempting rescue. UAVs can be commanded by colonels or piloted by privates. Unlike an F-35, Global Hawk crews may relieve another in mid-flight.

Indeed, one cannot even call UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) “drones” at all, as a drone is a machine that operates autonomously. UAVs are remotely piloted aircraft.

Drones can operate from any base with room for a maintenance and ordnance crew. They can travel any distance necessary to reach a theater of conflict. Once there, they can fly high and slow, circling and observing, for days at a time. Refueling — another procedure potentially conducted with UAVs — allows them to loiter beyond human endurance. A remotely piloted aircraft can accelerate and maneuver at stresses that would turn a human pilot to Jell-O. There is simply nothing a piloted plane does as well or better than a plane piloted from far away.

Their deadliness is not just a matter of weaponry, but sensing capability — cameras, radar, etc. — that make their ammunition count, especially when operated with skill and patience. If such aircraft are useful in finding and killing terrorists, they are at least twice as useful in conducting an actual war: every phase of the Libyan conflict saw another pair of drones arriving over a new front. The entire Libyan conflict saw 145 strikes; for this entire year, Pakistan has seen something between 57, according to the government, and 64, as reported by New America Foundation.

One more problem UAVs solve, from Stars & Stripes:

A 2009 RAND report said that, by 2016, the Air Force will have fewer than 1,000 fighter aircraft in its inventory, which represents only 32 percent of the number in 1989. The Air Force currently has just over 1,900 fighter/attack aircraft in the active, guard and reserve forces, according to Air Force officials.

“With fewer aircraft, it is difficult for all pilots to fly enough to maintain their combat skills, and it is particularly difficult for new pilots to gain enough experience in their first flying tour to be prepared for follow-on nonflying and flying positions,” the report states.

If the Air Force doesn’t fix its capacity to train more pilots on fighters, “eventually there won’t be enough pilots produced to fill all the cockpits,” said Al Robbert, director of the Manpower, Personnel and Training Program at RAND Project AIR FORCE. The Air Force, he said, may “have to give up some combat capability in order to build a bigger training capability.”

That spells a bright future for UAVs. If we can get past the hysterics, we might see an opening to make the common defense cost less and risk less while doing just as much, if not more, and doing it just as well, if not better. I say again: we may look back on the Libyan conflict as the beginning of the end of manned combat flight.

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