I subscribe to a digest of UAS-related issues from the Small Wars Council – often it lies dormant for weeks but this evening it delivered this corker item from Germany…an absolute how-NOT-to of aircraft (yes, unmanned aircraft ARE aircraft too) acquisition…
…because, of course, the second rule of aircraft acquisition is that it must actually meet a user requirement. One of the great idiocies of UA in the last decade is that people who really should know better are regarding UA as capabilities in their own right. The sad unfortunate and inconvenient truth is that UA are just like any other aircraft in that they provide a means to carry a capability through the air to (hopefully) create or apply specific effects. Those effects will probably fall into one of three functional groups of air power: Sense, Move, or Engage.
Some way down the acquisition path, there will be a decision point where the nature of the aircraft may need to be considered in terms of whether it should have seats or not. This decision should be based on a number of factors driven to a large extent by the environment in which it is expected that the aircraft will operate. And this is where the German methodology for Euro Hawk (assuming that such exists) unravels…surely not even the most zealous proponent on unmanned aircraft would realistically accept for a second that a large UA like Euro Hawk was ever going to be allowed to operate in the congested skies over western Europe?
The ‘sense and avoid’ issue is a bit of a red herring…the problem is not those airspace users that play by the rules: it is those that do not who pose the greater threat – unfortunately, as in so many things, it is the actions of the few that shape the rules that govern the many. The airways would most probably be far safer if all large aircraft flew automated courses, controlled by a central
skynet air traffic control. Human error is one of the more common causes of air incidents and thus a higher, not lesser, degree of automation in the airways would promote flight safety. The Sully Sullenberger’s of the world aside, if a large modern aircraft suffers a major systems failure, the skill and experience of the crew is only so capable of countering that failure. The main benefit of a flight crew aboard an aircraft in distress is their real-time situational awareness that is denied to a emote operator.
But, getting back to the Germans…half a billion euros down the gurgler for a capability that it not only cannot operate at home but that it probably should not have ever thought it could so until UA are integrated into civilian airspace, something that is unlikely to occur on a large scale any time soon. But, airworthiness and compliance issues with Northrop-Grumman aside (get better contract writers), this investment need not be wasted. There is nothing stopping Germany entering into an agreement with one of more other nations for its Euro Hawks, if ever delivered, or a replacement UA (if they really really must have a UA in this class and not a more flexible manned ISR platform), to operate in someone else’s less congested airspace to maintain air and ground crew proficiency and possibly contribute to other outputs. There has been discussion that UK Reapers (which also cannot fly in western European airspace) may be based in Kenya to do exactly this. If Kenya does not appeal, why not Australia or New Zealand…?
UA are no more capabilities in their own right than manned aircraft. Aircraft are a means of getting a capability to a specific point to create a desired effect, and (ideally) back again.
Don’t give up the dream but definitely stop stoking the fire for premature integration of UAs into congested civilian airspace – just stoke the embers for now.
Read the contract before you sign it – if you don’t like it, then bin it (before you commit half a billion euros) and wait or identify a replacement supplier. Northrop Grumman is not the only player in this game.
The age of manned aircraft is not over yet.
Think outside the square – does your large expensive UA really have to be based at home?