May 19, 2013
The Pentagon Detours to Terminator Planet
Posted on May 31, 2012
By Nick Turse, TomDispatch
The Holy Grail of drone ops is the ability of an aircraft to linger over suspected target areas for long durations. But ultra-long-term loitering operations still remain in the realm of fantasy. Admittedly, the Pentagon’s blue skies research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is pursuing an ambitious drone project to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and “communication missions over an area of interest” for five or more years at a time. The project, dubbed “Vulture,” is meant to provide satellite-like capabilities “in an aircraft package.”
Right now, it sounds downright unlikely.
While the Air Force has had a hush-hush unmanned space plane orbiting the Earth for more than a year, much like a standard satellite, the longest a U.S. military drone has reportedly stayed aloft within the planet’s atmosphere is a little more than 336 hours. Plans for ultra-long duration flights took a major hit last year, according to scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and defense giant Northrop Grumman.
In an effort to “to increase UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] sortie duration from days to months while increasing available electrical power at least two-fold,” according to a 2011 report made public by the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News, the Sandia and Northrop Grumman researchers identified a technology that “would have provided system performance unparalleled by other existing technologies.” In a year in which the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster turned a swath of Japan into an irradiated no-go zone, the use of that mystery technology, never named in the report but assumed to be nuclear power, was deemed untenable due to “current political conditions.”
From Dystopian Fiction to Dystopian Reality
Until recently, drones looked like a can’t-miss technology primed for big budget increases and revolutionary advances, but all that’s changing fast. “Realistic expectations are for zero growth in the unmanned systems funding,” Weatherington explained by email. “Most increases will be in technical innovations improving application of delivered systems on the battlefield, and driving down the cost of ownership.”
Major Jeffrey Poquette of the Army’s Small Unmanned Air Systems Product Office talked about just such an effort. By the late summer, he said, the Army planned to introduce more sophisticated sensors, including the ability to track targets more easily, in its four-pound Raven surveillance drones. Put less politely, what this means is no roll-outs of sophisticated new drone systems or revolutionary new drone technology: the Army will simply upgrade a glorified model airplane that first took flight more than a decade ago.
Sci-fi it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean that nothing will change in the world of drone warfare.
The Terminator films weren’t exactly original in predicting a future of unmanned planes dominating the world’s skies. At the end of World War II, General Henry “Hap” Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Forces praised American pilots for their wartime performance, but suggested their days might be numbered. “The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all,” he explained. The future of combat aviation, he announced, would be “different from anything the world has ever seen.”
The most salient and accurate of Arnold’s predictions was not, however, his forecast about drone warfare. Pilotless planes had taken flight years before the Wright Brothers launched their manned airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, and drones would not become a signature piece of American weaponry until the 2000s. Instead, Arnold’s faith in a “next war”—a clear departure from the sentiments of so many Americans after World War I—proved accurate again and again. Over the following decades, American aircraft would strike in North Korea, South Korea, Indonesia, Guatemala, Cuba, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq (again), Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen (again), Libya (again), and the Philippines. New technologies came and went, air strikes were the constant.
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