Staff Sgt. William Gerlach
performs a reliability check on an RQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial
vehicle. The Air Force's deputy chief of staff for air and space
operations is cautiously optimistic about the growing role of
UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles in future conflicts. Gerlach
is a crew chief currently deployed with the 15th Expeditionary
Reconnaissance Squadron (Photo by Capt. John Sheets) | High-res
version of this photo
UAVs may play increasing
by Master Sgt. Scott Elliott
Air Force Print News
03/03/03 - WASHINGTON
-- The Air Force's deputy chief of staff for air and space operations
is cautiously optimistic about the growing role of unmanned aerial
vehicles and remotely piloted vehicles in future conflicts.
"We're in a position where
technology and miniaturization can now begin to give us things
we haven't been able to do before," said Lt. Gen. Ronald E. Keys.
"What we have to do is make sure we're leveraging the peculiar
characteristics of UAVs to take advantage of those things they
do better than manned aircraft."
To do that, Keys said
the Air Force has to determine what capabilities it needs to successfully
operate across the Air Force's broad mission.
"I need to be able to
look at things adversaries don't want me to see," he said. "I
need to be able to stay in the area for a long time. I need the
ability to go into denied territory with an aircraft that, if
lost, won't cause huge political fallout or result in a combat
situation to rescue someone on the ground. I need precision-engagement
Of those requirements,
Keys said the remotely piloted vehicle has already proven its
value. The Predator is able to remain airborne over a single location
for 14 to 16 hours, and has been successfully armed. The Air Force's
premier UAV, the Global Hawk, can provide detailed surveillance
for 24 hours or more.
"Along with its persistence,
it brings what I call 'digital acuity,'" Keys said. "It is as
bright and wide awake in the 24th hour as it was in the first
minute. It doesn't get tired and doesn't get hungry. It hangs
there. It stares. It gives us an opportunity for predictive battle
space awareness and time sensitive target engagement."
Although their small size
makes UAVs hard to detect, Keys said stealth technology would
make the aircraft even more valuable.
"We'll have the ability
to go into denied areas, and people won't know we're there looking
at things they don't know we're looking at," he said. "Even if
they know we're coming, they can't find us."
Yet despite its current
successes and the promise UAVs hold for the future, Keys cautions
against reckless acquisition.
"We don't want to buy
UAVs just because they don't have a pilot in them," he said. "We
should buy UAVs because they give us capabilities we can't get
from spacecraft or manned aircraft."
While remotely piloted
vehicles have advanced to the point that the drones can carry
and successfully use weapons, the general said there is one vital
aspect of manned aircraft that technology has not yet been able
"You've heard about people
doing or seeing something and the hair goes up on the backs of
their necks? Computers have problems with hair standing up on
the backs of their necks," Keys said. "The ability of the human
mind to have a very large field of vision, absorb input, focus
and fuse it quickly to make a decision are advantages of manned
Until such time as technology
can totally remove pilots from cockpits, the general sees an operational
mix of manned and unmanned aircraft.
"I think there will be
a balance in our force," he said. "Will there, one day, be all
UAVS and RPVs? I don't know, but I have five grandchildren and
I hope that, at some time in the future, one of them won't have
to go to downtown bad-guy country in a manned system because we
arbitrarily didn't pursue a system just because it didn't have
a pilot in it.
"If we can get unmanned
or remotely piloted systems to do the things that need to be done,
then we'll pursue it. That's our commitment."