US, UK deploy manned unmanned aircraft to save bandwidth
Backseaters still tolerating pilots for now
Bandwidth-starved military spyplane chiefs are resorting to the use of humans as airborne data-processing nodes, according to reports. Difficulties in deployment of unmanned robot surveillance craft have led to the purchase of basic civilian planes for use in intelligence work above Iraq and Afghanistan.
For years now, ground commanders fighting elusive enemies in Southwest Asia have been begging for more and more long-endurance overhead surveillance, particularly that provided by the well-known Predator and Predator-B/Reaper Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs).
Yes, that one is pretty funny looking
Initially, problems in delivering more video and groundscan radar imagery were seen as following from foot-dragging by the air force. Generals were reluctant to draft jet jockeys into hated shift duties on the ground, piloting roboplanes by remote over satellite hookups from America. That logjam was resolved at least in part by sacking the boss of the US air force - his replacement has pledged to send pilots into drone duties straight from training if that's what it takes.
After that, continued slow ramp-up of the drone fleets was blamed on demand outstripping supply - there are other customers for UAVs than the military, including the CIA* and homeland-security authorities - and failures by one of the main roboplane makers, General Atomics, to scale up its manufacturing base swiftly enough.
In any case, more and more talk has been heard this year on the stateside spyplane beat of "Project Liberty" - a cheap-and-cheerful push to get more surveillance birds into the Southwest Asian skies in a hurry. The plan is to buy ordinary civilian twin-engine planes and fit them out with the lightweight sensors used by UAVs. They would of course need pilots, but in fact so do the current Predator and Reaper. The only difference is that these pilots would need to be physically in the aircraft.
This Tuesday, indeed, saw an order for 23 Beechcraft King Air 350 extended-range models for the US air force 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, aka "Big Safari", a famous secretive spyplane and electronic-trickery unit. King Airs are a very popular plane for clandestine spy work, oft-used by shadowy American and allied spy/intel and spec-ops projects and units over the years with a variety of mad equipment fitted.
Indeed, the King Air is so popular for this kind of job that there's a generic term for a spyplane-modded one. It is Funny Looking King Air (FLKA), as used by the doyen of secret-plane journalism, Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week.
For its part, the British Army ordered some King Airs last year, to be specially fitted out for Afghan spy work. The British forces have long used homegrown Islanders for this sort of thing in Northern Ireland and Iraq - and lately above certain parts of the mainland UK - but the hot-and-high conditions of Afghanistan call for a more powerful plane. The RAF ordered some Canadian-made Twin Stars this year, but the Army Air Corps favours the King Air for what it calls "Manned Airborne Surveillance".
It might seem odd that Army pilots will be flying FLKAs as well as air force people, but it's primarily the ground and special-ops forces who want these planes. The whole idea of using cheap, relatively low-performance airframes to do any task is quite unpopular among air forces. Airmen tend to describe such planes as not being "survivable" - meaning that if there were some enemy air forces or serious air defences about they'd often get shot down. Soldiers, however, who get killed frequently even when there's no enemy air threat at all, are sanguine about this.
It's being suggested that the use of FLKAs as opposed to UAVs may be a matter of satellite bandwidth as much as UAV manufacturing and crewing issues. A Predator relaying full-motion hi-res video or detailed radar imagery is a massive bandwidth hog, and if it is out of line-of-sight from a friendly ground base it must normally use satcomms. Not only is this expensive, but there is a hard limit on how much satellite bandwidth is available in any given region even for the Pentagon - and especially for the UK Ministry of Defence, which gets billed for the use of its new privately financed Skynet 5 commsats on a per megabyte pay-as-you-go basis**.
According to Bill Sweetman, the continuing popularity of FLKAs might show that the demise of the human pilot isn't yet imminent:
The FLKA, with sensor operators, intelligence specialists and linguists in the cabin, is autonomous [needing very little bandwidth].
The FLKA has two other advantages: there are no problems about UAVs in civil airspace, and (particularly in North America) pilots are really, really cheap...
Back in the 1950s, Britain's tiny Saunders-Roe company was building the rocket-powered SR.53 fighter. Designer Maurice Brennan, according to some of my old Flight colleagues, used to defend the concept against missile fanatics by remarking that "the guidance system weighs 200 pounds and drinks gin." That argument seems to be valid today.
Well, kind of. Actually there's no technical need for pilots to be aboard the aircraft - as opposed to the imagery analysts, sensor ops and possibly linguists (if you were so hard-up for bandwidth you couldn't even manage voice channels). The next-gen Predator UAV, aka "Sky Warrior", shortly to enter US Army service, won't need a remote pilot. It will fly itself for an entire mission, operated by non-commissioned tech personnel rather than wings-on-chest officers.
The Sky Warrior will still need lots of bandwidth, of course, and will be pricey in this context, so the FLKAs will probably stay popular. But its not the gin drinking meat guidance system that keeps them so - it's the bandwidth-saving people in the back.
Indeed, Boeing's unsuccessful contender for the US Navy's ocean-surveillance requirement was an "optionally manned" Gulfstream biz jet, which could carry a bandwidth-lite but endurance-limited human crew or go up empty for longer flights.
Theoretically, there'd be nothing to prevent the use of planes with human backseaters but no pilots, saving on bandwidth and gin. Obviously it'll probably never happen for morale reasons. The most one might see would be an occasional shot-down pilot or specwar operative flown out of trouble by a robotic A160T Hummingbird kill-chopper, perhaps.
Even so. Your correspondent, drinking gin with a Royal Navy search-and-rescue pilot some years ago, enquired what pilots really think of the backseat mission-systems types.
"I've never taken off with an observer on board where I wouldn't rather have had the same weight of fuel," he said.
The day appears to be coming where bandwidth-saving backseaters in the Southwest Asian Wars on Stuff could say the same of their chauffeurs up front. ®
*The CIA was the first agency to use armed Predators to kill people, and has maintained its own fleet since the last century. These UAVs are thought to be the ones now operating aggressively against al-Q and the Taliban in the border areas of Pakistan, allowing US military commanders across the frontier in Afghanistan to deny all knowledge.
**The British Army is so keen to save on bandwidth that its new Watchkeeper drone is intended to be able to operate in pairs, one working as line-of-sight comms relay for the other. This might, in fact, be the kind of plan that resolves the satellite bandwidth issue in the medium term.