UAV is an acronym for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. An UAV is essentially a robotic airplane or a flying drone. It is usually preprogrammed to operate and fly to its destination. However, it is also sometimes flown by a human operator usually situated in a ground station. The UAV is controlled through line of sight (LOS) C Band or a KU Band satellite datalink.

Some of the applications of UAVs include:
- Coastal Environmental Pollution Detection
- Remote Sensing Applications
- Military Reconnaissance Missions

Some of the companies involved in research and development of UAV systems:
- Aerovations
- General Atomics

Note: While many weapons systems can be considered UAVs, this node will be primarily about UAV's designed to be reused, not guidable missiles or bombs

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been experimented with as far back as American civil war, in the form of balloons with attached payloads (usually explosives or propaganda leaflets). The most famous balloon campaign was launched by the Japanese in WWII in retaliation of the Doolittle Raid on the Japanese mainland. Around 9,000 paper and rubberized silk balloons were constructed and launched from the Japanese island Honshu. Of these, around 1,000 were carried by high altitude winds to United States. The balloons were equipped with incendiary (intended to cause forest fires) and anti-personnel explosives. On May 5, 1945, six picnickers were killed in Oregon when they attempted to recover a balloon bomb, which exploded. These were the only known casualties on United States soil during WWII.


The Vietnam War witnessed the extremely successful use of UAVs as surveillance devices, which remains their primary purpose today. The Firebee AQM-34 drone was a modified Q-2C Firebee, a drone developed for target practice. Engineers made modifications to reduce the drone's radar signature, through the attachment of radar absorbent blankets and a few coats of newly developed radar absorbent paint. The drone could be fitted with a variety of surveillance devices, ranging from a simple TV camera to Doppler radar. Models were also adapted to drop propaganda leaflets over North Vietnamese territory or jam enemy radar. The Firebee drones proved to be extremely adaptable and reliable, 83% of the drones successfully returned from missions. The drones were operated by the 556th Recon Squadron (which was responsible for other high-tech military experiments, including project IglooWhite). Drones were deployed from the DC-130 control aircraft while in flight. The drones would then execute pre-programmed missions, although one of the two operators onboard the DC-130 could override and take manual control. After completing its mission, a drone would fly to a extraction point, release a parachute, and later be picked up via helicopter. The Firebee drones were very successful in their stealth reconnaissance role, and they flew more than 34,000 operational surveillance missions over Southeast Asia from October 1964 to April 1975.

Operator overrides were used several times during the war to creatively turn the unarmed drone into a combat aircraft. The 1st "kill" by a drone occurred in May of 1970. After a recon mission over Hanoi a Firebee drone was intercepted by a North Vietnamese MiG-21 en route to its extraction point in the Gulf of Tonkin. The MiG-21 fired two air-to-air missiles, both of which malfunctioned. The MiG continued pursuit and attempted to down the drone by clipping its wing. Before the drone could be physically knocked out of the sky, it deployed its parachute and landed safely into the waters below. The MiG pilot, however, had forgotten to monitor his fuel gauge and he was forced to eject when his plane ran out of fuel. The drone was recovered, and flew several uneventful missions until the 9th of March, 1971. During a recon flyover, the drone was intercepted by two MiGs. After extensive evasive maneuvers by the drone, a MiG pilot finally got a lock with an air-to-air missile, and scored a direct hit . . . on his wingman. Several weeks later the very same unmanned and unnamed drone was targeted by ground based anti-aircraft fire which it escaped, unlike the MiG pursing it. During the remainder of its career it reportedly scored 2 more kills. Should aforementioned tale of courage and heroics by an unmanned drone and operator be true, and not just a war legend, the drone could be classified as the 1st American fighter ace in the Vietnam War.

Operation Desert Storm

High Tech UAVs made possible with advances in computer and communications technologies appointed the 1991 Gulf War with the very appropriate designation of "Modern War."


Used by American forces, the Pioneer drone is an Israeli designed and American built UAV. After hearing of Israeli success with the UAV, the US Navy procured platform with the intention of using it for imagery intelligence (IMINT), to act as a spotter for sea-based artillery. It has a 17 ft wingspan, and is 14 ft long. It is powered by a 26 horsepower snowmobile engine and has a range of approximately 100 miles. It is launched via catapult from a ground location or ship. Unlike the Firebee, the Pioneer drone is guided via remote control by an operator in real-time and is equipped with a high-resolution camera which takes detailed pictures at a standard cruising height of 2,000 ft. The Pioneer was used very successfully by the US Navy in Operation Desert Storm in its IMINT role. The drone determined coordinates of Iraqi fortifications on the Kuwaiti coastline, which were then shelled by Navy artillery. The Pioneer was used by ground forces to survey large expanses of desert and terrain (Tomahawk missiles use terrain recognition for guidance, and areas must be mapped before the cruise missiles can be deployed.) and to determine targeting coordinates of enemy forces. Iraqi troops began to associate the high-pitched engine whine of the Pioneer with impending doom from above, courtesy of Navy artillery or the Air Force. After Faylaka Island was shelled by the USS Missouri, with the aid of Pioneer provided targeting coordinates, high command decided to fly a Pioneer low over the island. The remaining Iraqis scrambled to find and franticly wave anything and everything white, prompting the Navy operator to ask, "Sir, they want to surrender, what should I do with them?" It was the first time man surrendered to machine

War on Terror

The recent war in Afghanistan and Gulf War II have been the most successful times for UAVs; the two newest (declassified) American models are the Predator and the Global Hawk. The Predator has a range of about 460 miles and can remain in flight for up to 16 hours. A drone currently costs 3.2 million dollars. A CIA modified version carries a single hellfire anti-armor rocket. A Predator was used to destroy a car containing six suspected al-Qaeda members in a Yemen desert. Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, a former bin Laden bodyguard who was believed to have played a major role in the October 2000 attack on the destroyer Cole that killed 17 sailors was killed in the attack. A CIA drone was also used to attack a suspected al-Qaeda convoy in Afghanistan, although civilians in the area claim the convoy was civilian, not al-Qaeda. Hellfire-armed Predator drones were used to destroy Iraqi mobile radar sites during Gulf War II. Due to its low-flying nature, the Predator is extremely susceptible to both anti-aircraft and small arms fire. The Predator is also a very fragile aircraft, and cannot be flown in certain weather conditions. Since it's release into service in 1994, around 30 of the 70 drones in the Predator fleet have been lost, prompting many to question the program's cost effectiveness.

The Global Hawk is a high altitude (around 65,000 ft) recon drone which is programmed to fly automatically without human intervention for spans of up to 40 hours. It was used extensively during the Afghanistan war, where drones returned 15,000 high resolution images and logged 1,000 combat hours. It is very likely the drones were used in Gulf War II, but any such information is currently classified.

There are some significant legal and ethical implications of the employment of UAVs (incidentally, in modern military parlance the abbreviation is for Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles, not Unmanned Air Vehicles), especially in a combat role. Uninhabited combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) are perceived as a future replacement for combat aircraft. During my training at the Royal Air Force College one thing that was repeatedly emphasized to us was that the main problem with a combat aircraft is the 160-pound lump of flesh controlling it. The problems with piloted aircraft can be broken down as follows:

1.    Endurance. Human beings are delicate creatures. We need water, food and warmth to survive. We also need to get enough sleep in order for our higher mental functions to work properly. We are extremely dependant upon a certain level of air pressure to provide us with enough oxygen for respiration to occur. Lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia, is an extremely dangerous condition that can lead to confusion, blackout and asphyxia.

Breaking these elements down, human endurance leads to three problems in the use of combat aircraft - the need for sustenance (food and water), crew fatigue and environmental conditions. These all place significant limitations on the range, altitude and combat environment to which a combat aircraft can be deployed. Go too high, and the crew could suffer from hypoxia. Go too far (assuming air-to-air refuelling (AAR) is in use), and fatigue becomes a major factor. And deploying the crew into an area of intense aerial activity (AIAA) leads to problems with mental endurance, as fatigue sets in quicker and is exacerbated when the crew relaxes.

By replacing a pilot with a computer, you remove these problems. A computer will continue to operate within a vast range of operational conditions. You can dispense with expensive heating and canopy seals, and fill the big gap where the aircrew would sit with some more useful military hardware.

2.    Control problems. The Eurofighter is the most advanced combat aircraft in the world. Its onboard avionics enable the aircraft to autonomously make 200 minute adjustments to the control surfaces (rudder, ailerons and foreplane (the Eurofighter does not have fins for elevators)) every second. Yet there is one crucial control element without which the aircraft cannot function at all - the pilot. Kill the pilot, and you kill the aircraft, incapacitate him and the aircraft is neutralised. Basically, the pilot's brain is the highest control system in the aircraft, and the aircraft's performance can be limited or neutralised by causing pain or death to the pilot. Aircraft can usually function relatively well with the loss of an engine; the loss or damage of some of the fuselage is a serious problem but aircraft have been known to continue operating under such conditions. If the pilot is neutralised, however, the aircraft stops flying and starts plummeting.

With a computer you can build in redundancy, by having one or two spare CPUs to take over control of the UAV in the event of one failing. In addition, the pilot is located in a vulnerable position, in a transparent glass bubble at the front of the aircraft. A computer does not need to be in such a position, and hence can be located in a highly defended part of the UCAV.

3.    Ethical implications. Pilots are human beings. In the military we are petrified of the CNN Factor - those constraints placed upon operations by the consideration of ethical and humanist factors and consequences of military actions. Basically, if a pilot is shot down the military is obliged by the public to try and recover him. Witness the events in Mogadishu in 1992 - the US military had to recover its lost Black Hawk pilots, and did so at a great cost of military and civilian lives. Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) is a costly and highly risky enterprise, and is necessitated by the loss of any aircrew due to modern considerations of human rights - during the Second World War, for example, a lost pilot was lost full stop. The onus was on him to get back to friendly forces, not for the forces to recover him.

UAVs do not have significant ethical implications in this respect - no-one really cares whether it is lost. The public don't care at all unless the cost is borne heavily by the taxpayer, and the military doesn't care as long as operations are not significantly degraded.

So, UCAVs seem to be the way forward. They do not need to be comfortable. With AAR they are capable of loitering for weeks. CSAR is not a factor. There are, however, some important ethical implications when you take the human control element away from air combat/bombing.

Firstly, all pilots are bound by the Nuremburg Principle - basically, if a pilot is called to Court-Martial to explain his decisions, he cannot say "I was only following orders" in defence. He is ultimately responsible for any unlawful actions, and can therefore refuse to carry out orders he feels to be illegal; UCAVs do not have a conscience, they cannot make reasoned judgement - they cannot refuse orders. Since a commander is not in the theatre of battle, he cannot predict with absolute accuracy the consequences, in terms of collateral and additional damage, of an on-the-spot combat decision, and he has to rely upon the pilot, on the scene, making the absolute final decision. The removal of the pilot is the removal of front-end decision making. Even if the UCAV is under positive control - ie, an operator is directing its actions - it lacks the situational awareness of a pilot, and many believe that the public will not support the use of fully-autonomous UCAVs due to the removal of the human element of control.

Secondly, the Principle of Humanity or Unnecessary Suffering places strict limitations on the types of weapons systems employed by military forces in that they should not cause undue human suffering, or exceed internationally agreed limits on range, explosive power, etc. The legal status of UCAVs is brought into question by the 1988 Intermediate-range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF), agreed by the United States and the Soviet Union. INF prohibits the US and USSR (and, by proxy, Russia and former Soviet Republics) from using ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500km. Since the UCAV is essentially a cruise missile - an airborne vehicle under procedural or positive control intended for the delivery of an explosive payload - some critics feel the INF should outlaw its use. The Israelis developed and employed a UCAV called the Harpy during Operation ALLIED FORCE. It was essentially a cruise missile with a 32 kg warhead and range of up to 600 km. Due to its international obligations under INF and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (START) the US could not have used this UCAV.

Military commanders, however, point out that UCAVs are actually aircraft and not missiles, due to their design, flight profiles and recoverability. This is contentious in itself, however, because International Law prohibits the deployment of recoverable missiles, and, again, some critics believe that this is exactly what UCAVs are. In addition, the INF and START protocols only apply to the US and USSR. Other leading UAV-capable nations, in particular the United Kingdom and Israel are not bound by them (UK policy is to limit ranges to meet INF in principle).

UCAVs have been the dream of Generals for centuries, and now that they are a reality the facts of the issue are as contentious as older military techniques - the attritional approach to the First World War, strategic bombing during the second world war, right up to Shock and Awe in Operation TELIC/IRAQI FREEDOM. For as long as the issue is burning, the military will continue to find ways to reduce the adverse effects of UCAVs in favour of the percieved future "clean" battlefield.

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