Spies on the skies

Unmanned aerial vehicles are the future of military reconnaissance

Published: Sunday 31 October 1999

 Pilotless planes will play a< (Credit: nasa)they are expected to play a leading role in future aerial reconnaissance and warfare. These small, remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft -- some of which are seven metres long with a wingspan of only nine metres -- could hold the key to success in military operations.

Their utility came to the fore during the nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) operations in Kosovo, when they were used far more extensively than in previous conflicts. Although many of them were lost, their place in the us military arsenal has been secured ( Scientific American, Vol 281, No 3).

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles ( uav ), as they are called, have generated interest for a number of reasons. Not only are they less expensive than other aircraft, they are also less risky for they do not require pilots. They can be used for a number of intelligence-gathering activities. Equipped with cameras, radar, infrared and other sensors to pass on information, they can also target locations and monitor troop movements.

The war in Kosovo revealed another aspect: uav s are expendable. The us lost at least 15 unmanned aircraft, some to Serbian attacks and others due to accidents, during its three-month operation in Kosovo. But their losses were never mentioned. On the other hand, the loss of a F-117A stealth bomber became a big media story. "That's the way it is supposed to be," says Kenneth R Israel, a long-time uav supporter and former director of the Defence Airborne Reconnaissance Office. He feels that "unmanned aircraft provide an opportunity to have superior information without the consequences of having high casualty rates. People do not mind losing uav s".

For example, three uav s were shot down on a single day in March by Serbian forces. Yet, the mission set for the vehicles was considered accomplished. Although the target of their mission remains classified, some military officials, on condition of anonymity, said that the uav s were sent to photograph evidence of "ethnic cleansing and grave sites." Says an official: "The target was considered so important they send them in knowing they might be lost.

Today, faster, higher-flying uav s are being introduced. The us A ir Force's Global Hawk, for example, is being programmed to execute a number of complex functions. Military officials claim that many more ambitious projects are on the anvil.

The realm of science fiction may soon become a reality, say experts. A time will come when uav s will be weaponised to launch missiles and drop bombs, for lesser money and at even lesser risk to humans.

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