( Previously published in Space Daily )
When Skynet became sentient, before sending Terminators to eliminate specified human enemies, it dispatched Hunter Killers…or in other words Unmanned Aerial Vehicles with artificial intelligence and analyzing capability, to track down, alert and notify and if possible terminate targets. That was in 1984. That was in a movie.
Reality in 2012 is a bit different, and a thousand times more interesting. The use of UAVs, both reconnaissance and combat changed the dynamics of modern warzones. In the modern battlefield, where soldiers don’t go muzzle to muzzle anymore, the threats are asymmetric, sudden and lethal, and Drones are arguably the best way to counter those threats without putting the lives of soldiers at risk. The United Nations recently proposed the use of Drones in Africa in both combat and intelligence gathering missions, a sensitive move that could be a precedent and could prove to be immensely controversial, especially in places like Congo, Libya and Somalia, where there are questions and controversies relating to international legality and mandate. The United States administration under President Obama, the World’s predominant power using Drones, is also charting new legal documents, which would set clear operational standards and procedures and legal framework for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for targeted elimination of immediate and disproportionate threats. Other nations are also operating and developing Drones and one can clearly say it will only continue to grow.
Here’s a list of ten current and future Drones, which are either in the final stages of development, or just operational and under a process of improvisation. The selection criteria were based on the country using the Drone and its operational experience, scope and accuracy and the chances of use and future international markets. We start with:
10. Denel Dynamics Bateleur – South Africa
The Bateleur is a Medium Altitude – Long Endurance (MALE) UAV prototype designed by Denel South Africa. Its role is primarily surveillance. It is also capable of signal intelligence. It is a single, completely autonomous unit, which can take off, conduct mission and land without human control. It could be further developed in the future with laser designation and target location for artillery or air power during combat operations. Relatively cheap, this unit is already in the process of being inducted in Brazilian Airforce, and seems like a good bet for third world countries facing insurgency.
9. Saab Skeldar – Sweden
Skeldar is a medium range vertical takeoff and landing UAV under development. Its missions will include surveillance, intelligence, cargo transport and electronic warfare. Take off and landing is autonomous although its electronic warfare and jamming requires human supervision. It is in the process of being equipped with cargo hooks and laser designators, which would potentially make it capable of taking part in evacuation and hardware drop procedures during combat. Currently Saab is in partnership with Swiss UAV to jointly manufacture and market this unit.
8. Dassault nEUROn – France/Sweden/Italy
The nEUROn is under development, originally spearheaded by Dassault; it is now a European cooperation including Swedish Saab AB, Greek EAB, Swiss RUAG Aerospace, Spanish EADS CASA and Italian Alenia. It is an experimental UAV, which would be primarily used for combat operations. Until 2005, it was being manufactured as an unmanned heavy bomber capable of dropping nuclear weapons, but under cooperation from Sweden, it was transformed into a multi role unmanned aircraft with a much smaller single engine technology. It is scheduled for test flights in early next year.
7. EADS Barracuda – Germany/Spain
Barracuda, by EADS first crashed in 2008 in the initial stage of its development, almost and was almost scrapped. Fortunately good sense prevailed, and it is now under renewed development. It is a recon and combat UAV, with stealth components, and being made almost entirely of solid carbon fiber, is supposed to be massively cost effective in comparison with metal bodied UAVs. It is primarily going to be a competitive product against the nEUROn, which is manufactured by France and Sweden.
6. BAE Taranis – United Kingdom
The empire strikes back! Taranis, named after Celtic god of Thunder, is an unmanned, semi autonomous, multi role, primarily combat vehicle currently under development. It uses components of stealth and radar evading technology, and is controllable via satellite from anywhere in the World. It is also tied with BAE systems Australia, and with a complete takeoff weight of around 8000 kilos, it is almost the size of a small fighter. It is scheduled to undergo trials in the first half of 2013.
5. DRDO Aura – India
Like everything else in India, this program was also highly secretive and not officially acknowledged until late 2011, when the first images started to leak in defence forums across the World. Aura is exactly what it is said to be, a complete autonomous unmanned combat vehicle, capable of delivering precision guided ammunition, and self defending while in recon mode. The design looks very similar to the stealth bombers of US, using a fly wing technology. It is also completely indigenous, with a dedicated 15-18 scientist team working on it, according to DRDO and Ministry of Defence official statement. Knowing India’s situation, there is a high likelihood that this sweet machine would be used in high altitude areas like Kashmir and Siachen, but whether India would like to market and sell it, is a debatable question.
4. IAI Eitan – Israel
This one is not under development, it is already under use. The reason this one features in this list is there is an ongoing debate on whether this prototype should be used for combat or strictly recon. Eitan is an advanced model of Heron, notable mostly for its wide market in several countries, and its recent use in Gaza, although primarily for recon missions. It is also the only UAV outside an American Drone that is known to take an active airstrike in Sudan, outside its country, in 2009. It is a MALE UAV, operating above altitudes of commercial air traffic, for multirole combat, target, recon, surveillance and strategic purposes, capable of delivering all kinds of payloads, basically everything a small brigade needs for air support.
3. Mikoyan Skat – Russia
Time for the final three and here comes the big boys! Mikoyan Skat, or mantaray, is a two concept strike unmanned combat aerial vehicle, which is…in the shape of a mantaray! It is under development by Russian Airforce, a subsonic, all terrain, autonomous fighter, possibly to be used for enemy air defence suppression and attack mode. It is what it is…a strike fighter…deadly, stealthy, and large enough to carry massive missiles like KH – 31, and other anti-radiation and cruise missiles, just that it is unmanned. Possible uses in the near future can be Chechnya, and Georgia, if they are unfortunate enough. But we don’t imagine it is meant to be used against enemies with good air defence systems, atleast for now. Russia has a lot of problems regarding command and control, evident from their 2008 war with Georgia, and it is not clear or tested how this beauty would perform under extreme conditions, facing a genuine fighter handed by a human, in a dogfight. But still, Russia being Russia, a country that can always surprise us and the potential marketability of this UAV places it in first three.
2. Chengdu Pterodactyl I – China
The most secretive UAV program? No prize for guessing. The Pterodactyl I is under development by China, and is shrouded with secrecy, which are impossible to verify. The only information available are the ones from Chinese defence forums, which are strictly filtered by the Chinese defence establishment censors. It is a MALE kill vehicle, possibly multirole, surveillance, and air recon, and capable of firing air to air weapons in self defence or offence mode, and with a wide range of sensors including infrared and synthetic aperture. Stage of development, not known. First trial flight, not known. Looks eerily similar to a US Predator/Reaper clone, which gives rise to suspicion that it was reverse engineered by China, which in turn should give credit to her intelligence service. Still not tested in combat scenarios, and marketability is doubtful, although possible customers might well be Pakistan and North Korea. Reason for being number two? Simply because we’re talking about China…the country which stunned the World with the destruction of its malfunctioning satellite a few years back and more recently a new aircraft carrier and stealth fighters in operational mode.
1. General Atomics MQ 1C Grey Eagle – United States of America
The number one, prima donna, US MQ 1C Grey Eagle, also called Sky Warrior is an unmanned air combat system, currently under development. It is scheduled to replace the current fleet of Drones, an upgrade of the MQ Predator, and won the UAV design competition in 2002 by the US Army. It is a MALE vehicle, with synthetic aperture, radar evading systems, with an operating range of over 400 KMs. Carrying Hellfire missiles, and GBU 44/B Viper Strike guided bombs, it is the ultimate Hunter Killer an army can boast off. Its operational trial history in Afghanistan and Iraq gives it the experience few countries have, which keeps it miles ahead of other competitors. Some software problems although were evident raising some questions on reliability, but we give the benefit of doubt, as simply US is still the most open country when it comes to weapons programs, and we don’t know if other top tier Drones are facing similar problems. Marketability is immense, being a US product, although the willingness of the administration to market this is debatable. There are debates about the over reliance on technology, and increasingly lesser human control. Also legality and morality questions are still being argued. But given the Hobbesian World we live in, what can be more amoral and realist than a Grey Eagle?