Myths of “unmanned” aircraft

Do you remember the bobbing heads and blank stares of foreign correspondents during that long pause before they answer the news anchor’s question? The question has to travel through a gauntlet of electronic devices to reach a satellite uplink, get there, travel to at least one other satellite, travel back to the surface, through another gauntlet of electronic devices, and then to the foreign correspondent’s ear. The correspondent adds a moment to think about an answer, starts speaking, and the signal stream makes a return trip before the listening audience sees and hears the correspondent answer.

That time lapse is called “latency.” Even though the electrical signal travels at about the speed of light, every relaying device it encounters adds its few milliseconds of latency. Add these electronic “rest stops” up along with the reaction speed of the correspondent and we get a time delay measured in seconds.

Ok, now picture with me a similar situation, electronically speaking. You are a remote control aviator armed with a computer and controls that mimic the cockpit of a pilotless warplane. If you minimize the number of message relay devices, you still end up with a couple dozen or so electronic “rest stops” to delay the reaction speed of the communication between you and that warplane 7000 miles or so away from you. Your signal transmission also competes with a building full of other pilots waiting for its turn through the electronic “pipe” through the same satellites. Even though you have the reaction speed of a teenage master gamer, your 14,000 mile round-trip handicap through that gauntlet of electronic devices makes you look really slow.

If a piloted enemy warplane is shooting at your plane, or a ground to air missile is roaring in your direction at 5 times the speed of sound, what are your odds of survival? My guess is slim to none. It does not matter if your warplane can take a tight turn at 15 times gravity weight (15 G) compared to the enemy’s 8 G body suit. The enemy’s weapons are on you before you even know he fired them at your plane.

Therefore, remotely piloted aircraft have inherent limitations in a combat theater. They cannot live in contested air space. They cannot safely takeoff or land in hostile ground space. They cannot defend other aircraft such as tankers, bombers, or AWACS aircraft. They cannot evade surface to air missile attacks. They can transmit video to ground commanders, launch air-to-ground missiles, and provide other limited ground support, but that is all they can do. Only two kinds of aircraft are found in hostile air space: the unpredictably quick and the dead.


Roger O’Daniel, Air Force Association Minneapolis, MN



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