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Hellfires Wanted: It's time to start tasking armed drones as combat aircraft

dimsum

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In the U.S. air campaign to capture Raqqa, 20 percent of the munitions deployed came from remotely piloted aircraft. Yet almost all these remote flights were planned, tasked, and executed as intelligence collection missions. Despite its growing reliance on MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones in combat, the U.S. military has no specific employment doctrine for these platforms. Airstrikes from unmanned assets, even when pre-planned, are executed as ad hoc events outside the traditional attack planning process. While U.S. forces were able to operate this way and be successful in counter-terrorism operations, a force employment model where one-fifth of munitions are unplanned and untasked is not sustainable in more complex warfare. As the United States pivots from counter-terrorism to more advanced adversaries, it has updated both the intelligence capability and the firepower of its aircraft. But the procedures for how to plan and task operations have remained static.

In my own experience as an MQ-9 pilot over the past five years, I have repeatedly seen the limitations of treating vital combat assets as if they were simply intelligence gathering platforms. From the MQ-9, I have employed over 40 missiles and bombs, including “danger close” strikes defending American troops. All but one of those was an unplanned re-tasking of a mission flown for intelligence collection. Using intelligence channels to task armed aircraft makes it difficult to effectively prioritize, request, arm, or evaluate strikes. So far, the United States has successfully muddled through with this outdated approach. Against a near-peer threat, however, this will not be possible. A better method for planning and programming remotely piloted sorties is urgently needed.

 

FJAG

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I had the same opinion expressed to me in a recent interview from Afghanistan: that the only intelligence resource worth it's weight in gold was a Predator with a Hellfire because it could reach out and touch someone immediately. There are some RoE issues in some cases but the speed and accuracy of reaction is truly worthwhile.

That said, how to what extent is a Predator of value in a context where the enemy has even a moderate air defence capability? Do we need to couple it with some form of anti-air defence capability that can react immediately to any sign of emission or launch. Is there an equivelent of the Trophy countermeasures system for the Predator?

Would we be better off putting the same money into a larger number of cheaper loitering munitions?

🍻
 

Good2Golf

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…load up the Reapers with HARMs and give them ‘Wild Weasle’ capability (self defence, of course) too… 👍🏼
 

Underway

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I had the same opinion expressed to me in a recent interview from Afghanistan: that the only intelligence resource worth it's weight in gold was a Predator with a Hellfire because it could reach out and touch someone immediately. There are some RoE issues in some cases but the speed and accuracy of reaction is truly worthwhile.

That said, how to what extent is a Predator of value in a context where the enemy has even a moderate air defence capability? Do we need to couple it with some form of anti-air defence capability that can react immediately to any sign of emission or launch. Is there an equivelent of the Trophy countermeasures system for the Predator?

Would we be better off putting the same money into a larger number of cheaper loitering munitions?

🍻

Using some ISR assets we tracked a pers who placed an IED back to their residence. Then this info was fed back into the INT machine and the whole organization was rolled up, the handler, bomb maker, finance etc... It was like a police drug sting. If the UAV was armed then there would have been the temptation to hit them with a missile (total waste of money, ordinance) and we might not have the loiter time to actually follow them for multiple hours and then watch their residence for hours after they went there.

The US was in particular far too bloodthirsty in using armed drones to blow crap up. More than once we looked with incredulity at the US Col saying "Just get some already!" for something that did not require kinetics. Killing the farmer who was hired for $10 to place the bomb has limited value. We know there the IED is at this point. Send out the EOD, disarm it and then get the INT on how it's made. Getting the guy who made the bomb (and other bombs) and the rest of the organization was far more valuable.

This of course makes complete sense from the article. Task UAV assets based on their mission set. If you want ISR then send an unarmed asset. It increases their time in the air not carrying around the ordinance. If you want missions like a CAP or persistent air cover, then task them as such.

There is lots of value to having a silent, stealthy watcher feeding info back into the machine. External ordinance reduces your endurance, speed and increases your signature. There's definitely a time and place for both.
 

SupersonicMax

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…load up the Reapers with HARMs and give them ‘Wild Weasle’ capability (self defence, of course) too… 👍🏼
I doubt a Reaper would be capable of carrying the HARM (it is a big missile - only the inboard stations could take its weight and I think there would be stores clearance issues given the low speed of the MQ-9). Also, the missile’s range is heavily affected by the launcher’s speed, which would reduce its utility on the Reaper... It also requires a host of new sensors attached to the aircraft to support the targeting of the HARM. I don’t see it on the Reaper. I could see, however, a dedicated uncrewed platform for SEAD/DEAD in the future.
 

Good2Golf

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I doubt a Reaper would be capable of carrying the HARM (it is a big missile - only the inboard stations could take its weight and I think there would be stores clearance issues given the low speed of the MQ-9). Also, the missile’s range is heavily affected by the launcher’s speed, which would reduce its utility on the Reaper... It also requires a host of new sensors attached to the aircraft to support the targeting of the HARM. I don’t see it on the Reaper. I could see, however, a dedicated uncrewed platform for SEAD/DEAD in the future.
Should have been more specific…MQ-9C

…or MQ-25ish
 

Kirkhill

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If you are providing a Combat Air Patrol aren't most of your strikes likely to be "unplanned" and "ad hoc"?

I'm just thinking that those omnipresent Reapers and Predators, in addition to being ISR and Comms platforms, were also supplying a low rate of fire Combat Air Patrol.

In the last 20 years or so how many strikes, from all platforms, have been planned and how many have been against targets of opportunity or necessity? Were all A-10 strikes planned, or AH-64 strikes, or even B-1/B-52 strikes, planned on the ground by the Air Force against known targets? Or were a significant portion in response to urgent calls from the Army to strike immediate targets?
 

Underway

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If you are providing a Combat Air Patrol aren't most of your strikes likely to be "unplanned" and "ad hoc"?

I'm just thinking that those omnipresent Reapers and Predators, in addition to being ISR and Comms platforms, were also supplying a low rate of fire Combat Air Patrol.

In the last 20 years or so how many strikes, from all platforms, have been planned and how many have been against targets of opportunity or necessity? Were all A-10 strikes planned, or AH-64 strikes, or even B-1/B-52 strikes, planned on the ground by the Air Force against known targets? Or were a significant portion in response to urgent calls from the Army to strike immediate targets?
I may have my terminology wrong but I was pretty sure CAP was for air defense. However, whatever you call it the effect of persistent air cover is essentially aircraft in the air that is on call for help. Often they are helicopters or A10's but UAS can provide this as well. It's was relatively common in Afghanistan where there was almost 0 threat to the air. Of course, there are aircraft on call to scramble as well. Persistent air cover is expensive, but UAS does it cheaper. It's one of the reasons they were used for so many strikes because they were already in the air.
 

Kirkhill

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I may have my terminology wrong but I was pretty sure CAP was for air defense. However, whatever you call it the effect of persistent air cover is essentially aircraft in the air that is on call for help. Often they are helicopters or A10's but UAS can provide this as well. It's was relatively common in Afghanistan where there was almost 0 threat to the air. Of course, there are aircraft on call to scramble as well. Persistent air cover is expensive, but UAS does it cheaper. It's one of the reasons they were used for so many strikes because they were already in the air.

I may have my contemporary usage wrong but from the era of WW2, Korea, Vietnam Combat Air Patrol was supplied by fighter bombers of Tactical Air Forces flying Typhoons, Tempests, Mustangs, Bostons, and SkyRaiders. The A-10, I believe, was the successor to those aircraft. And yes it was an expensive task, probably one of the reasons Air Forces weren't so keen on spending a lot of their budget on it. They prefer to keep their aircraft on the ground and drop lots of bombs at once. The Army would prefer that they were in the air all the time and drop the occasional bomb when it is required.

The UAS is a cheaper solution. But will it be retained in orbit? Or will it be surged in swarms? The fact that they also function as ISR platforms and comms nodes, and don't put pilots at risk, probably argues in favour of their being retained by the Army, at least under operational control.
 

dimsum

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The UAS is a cheaper solution. But will it be retained in orbit? Or will it be surged in swarms? The fact that they also function as ISR platforms and comms nodes, and don't put pilots at risk, probably argues in favour of their being retained by the Army, at least under operational control.
...why not both?

I know that the current bunch of RPAs are (relatively) slow and primarily used for ISR with a secondary strike capability, but this is a category of aircraft that can (and will) change. I suspect that within the next few decades, this capability will start blurring previously-rigid lines like everything else ("operator" vs "pilot", etc).
 

FJAG

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I may have my contemporary usage wrong but from the era of WW2, Korea, Vietnam Combat Air Patrol was supplied by fighter bombers of Tactical Air Forces flying Typhoons, Tempests, Mustangs, Bostons, and SkyRaiders. The A-10, I believe, was the successor to those aircraft. And yes it was an expensive task, probably one of the reasons Air Forces weren't so keen on spending a lot of their budget on it. They prefer to keep their aircraft on the ground and drop lots of bombs at once. The Army would prefer that they were in the air all the time and drop the occasional bomb when it is required.

The UAS is a cheaper solution. But will it be retained in orbit? Or will it be surged in swarms? The fact that they also function as ISR platforms and comms nodes, and don't put pilots at risk, probably argues in favour of their being retained by the Army, at least under operational control.
And don't forget the contributions of the venerable F-4 Phantoms and the A-7 Corsairs. There's a list of US aircraft losses during Vietnam here which will show you the wide variety of aircraft used there.

The type of air support seen in Afghanistan and Iraq basically grew out of the mostly permissive environment of Vietnam. In those days standing sorties were sent out to basically provide a stand-by, on-call resource or tasked to support specific missions. They were basically referred to as either CAS or TacAir.

Vietnam was also the genesis for both the well-developed attack helicopter concept with the AH-1 Cobra which came out in 67/68 (albeit armed helicopters existed before this) and the A-10 itself which first flew in the early 1970s.

🍻
 
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