March 07, 2012

Good UAV piece, one flaw

I liked Micah Zenko's primer on drones (aka, "unmanned aerial vehicles") at, because I think a little more knowledge on the subject in the public realm is not a bad thing. One quibble, though: where Zenko talks about the fragility of drones in hostile weather and climate conditions (something every soldier knows well) his basis is a citation about something completely different:

The primary reasons for the crashes: bad weather, loss or disruption of communications links, and "human error factors," according to the Air Force. As Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, has noted with refreshing honesty, "Some of the [drones] that we have today, you put in a high-threat environment, and they'll start falling from the sky like rain."

I'm assuming there's a missing sentence or two in there, because of course Gen. Deptula wasn't talking about bad weather. His "high threat environment" is when your opponent has some weapon capable of shooting a drone down. So far, over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, this hasn't been an issue. Deptula's point is that as soon as you have a hostile air force capable of air-to-air combat in the picture, the environment for UAVs suddenly becomes a lot less permissive, and a lot of the stuff we're getting away with in counterinsurgency ops simply won't be as possible. He's not talking about bad weather or crashes, he's talking drones getting hit with missiles, a different order of problem altogether.

Now, the counter-argument has always been that drones are cheap enough, in cost and lives, to waste in just such a fashion, that there's an inherently lower risk of loss involved in using them. And I for one am skeptical that interceptor aircraft or surface to air missiles are going to be quite as useful against them as some might think. Historical analogies would be artillery spotter aircraft or helicopters or maritime patrol aircraft, none of which are very survivable when jet fighters are around either, but they still have long and illustrious service histories in shooting wars when the local conditions are favourable to them flying. There's every reason to believe that, wherever you can maintain air superiority (which fighters like the F-22 and F-35 are designed to do) then you can continue to operate pretty much as now. If you can't, well, then, the enemy's drones are not going to be the biggest of your problems.

Posted by BruceR at 11:17 PM

Unfortunate metaphor

Look, I know finding public affairs successes in ANSF advising these days is hard work, but really, if your central metaphor is "building a plane while flying it" in a Afghan army mentoring success story, your public affairs staff is either burned out or trying to get fired, or both.

Look, the whole expression is meant to define something as inherently impossible, because the act it refers to is not actually humanly achievable. The written-up (and I have no doubt meritable) accomplishments of yon Sgt. MacAlister are therefore undercut by a headline that's basically shouting to our unconscious minds: "Stop This! This is insane!"

Posted by BruceR at 11:25 AM