Title: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): An Assessment of Historical Operations and Future Possibilities

Subject: Analyze the lessons learned from U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) activities and visions of potential applications.

Author(s): Christopher A. Jones; Mark S. Barnhart (Faculty Advisor)


Abstract: UAVs are not new; they have a long history in aviation. Pilotless aircraft, whether as aerial targets or for more belligerent purposes, have a history stretching back to the First World War. The annual Jane's All the World's Aircraft has described UAVs since the 1920s. From early use as target drones and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), the U.S. employed UAVs for reconnaissance purposes during the Korean War, and then as highly classified "special purpose aircraft" during the conflict in Southeast Asia. UAV missions flew mainly to cover areas determined too hazardous for manned reconnaissance aircraft. Additionally, these missions occurred at a fraction of the cost of and risk to manned aircraft. The Air Force also investigated the potential utility of expanding the UAV's role beyond reconnaissance, specifically in air defense suppression and strike missions, but never operationally fielded these possibilities. Interest in UAVs dwindled through the 1970s and 1980s.

General awareness and military-wide acceptance of the utility of UAVs for U.S. military operations did not emerge again until their use during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During Desert Storm, with most of the U.S.'s fleeting manned tactical reconnaissance assets committed, UAVs emerged as a critical source of intelligence at the tactical level. Recently, UN and NATO activities in the former Yugoslavia also brought international attention to the advantage of military UAVs. According to Jane's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Targets, at least fourteen countries are using or developing over 76 different types of surveillance, target acquisition, electronic warfare, and expendable UAVs.

Currently, the U.S. DOD is aggressively developing two classes of UAVs to support the Joint Vision 2010 quest for Information Superiority-tactical and high-altitude endurance (HAE) UAVs. The HAE UAVs will be theater-level assets controlled predominately by the Joint Task Force Commander and provide broad area surveillance over the battlefield. The tactical UAVs will come under the control of lower echelons, notionally battalion level commanders, and provide much more focused coverage.

The Air Force is now envisioning, as described in New World Vistas, other potential missions for UAVs beyond the traditional reconnaissance mission. Also, Micro UAVs, less than 15 cm long, could provide the basis for even more potential applications. It does seem clear that applications for UAVs will expand. Increased sensitivity to risking human life in combat is pushing the U.S. military towards expanding UAV applications. Also, the rapidly advancing technologies are pulling us towards the economic viability of expanding the role of UAVs in the future DOD force structure. As the U.S. military evolves to become a more flexible force across the spectrum of conflict, clearly UAVs will be an integral part of our ability to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Last updated 1998 Mar 06