Flashback to February 2002: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles On the Rise

By S.L. Fuller | April 5, 2017
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NG Schweizer VTUAV

This photo originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of R&WI

This article was originally published in the February 2002 issue of R&WI and has been edited to comply with current grammar and style guidelines. Look for our special 50th Anniversary edition of the May/June 2017 magazine, in which we'll celebrate the past 50 years — and look ahead to the next 50 years —of rotorcraft innovations.

America's unconventional war against terrorism continually tests the assumptions of the political and military establishments. It brings to mind a quote from Harold Macmillan, a former prime minister of Britain. When asked to name his greatest challenge in office, he replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”


The tragedy of Sept. 11 has prompted a reappraisal of national security threats at home and abroad. It’s increasingly apparent that the overall policy to defend against such threat is flawed. As counterterrorism takes on added importance, military planners are wisely emphasizing hardware that confers flexibility and minimizes the risk of causalities. In this regard, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) seem to fit the bill.

The U.S. military has spent trillions of dollars on ultra-sophisticated hardware, and yet a motley band of unshaven religious fanatics armed with box cutters managed to inflict horrific damage on American soil. Some of the nation’s strategic weapons systems, designated for symmetrical war against well-defined enemies, now resemble a contemporary version of the Maginot Line.

Military planners, of course, are aware of this predicament, and they’ve set the Pentagon on a course of reform and modernization. Pentagon acquisition chief Pete Aldridge acknowledged that here is an enormous impetus within the Pentagon to develop UAS programs. “We’re very interested in accelerating [unmanned aerial vehicles], and that is one of the primary considerations in our FY03-07 budget that will come out in February,” he told reporters.

The enthusiasm for UAS is reflected in the Defense Dept.’s public relations efforts, as well. For example, it’s likely that Defense will send the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk to the Berlin Air Show in May, where many leading companies are planning to attend on a large scale. The Berlin Air Show will be the first aerospace fair in Europe since the terrorist attacks.

The growing relevance of UAS was a major topic of conversation at the Assn. of the United States Army (AUSA) Aviation Symposium and Exhibition, held Jan. 7-9 in Falls Church, Virginia.

Problem is, old habits die hard and entrenched interests resist change. Despite the Bush administration’s $1.35 trillion tax cut and the evaporation of the once-hefty budget surplus, it’s a sure bet that defense spending will drastically increase over the coming years. However, military spending must be prioritized, according to war fighting strategies that are relevant. It would be a mistake to assume that the war against terrorism requires giving the Pentagon a blank check. As one military analyst told R&WI, “Military pork is not synonymous with patriotism.”

Consequently, military reformers find it heartening that coast-effective UASs, such as the General Atomics RQ-1A Predator and RQ-4A Global Hawk are already proving their worth.

The Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS designed for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition in theater. The aircraft is primarily used in places where air defenses have not been completely elinaed and in areas that are biologically or chemically contaminated. Early in the Afghanistan conflict, an RQ-1A was shot down, in effect saving the life of a U.S. pilot who otherwise would have had to fly recon. Predator has been used extensively in fulfilling U.S. reconnaissance needs in Iraq and during Operation Allied Force in Kosovo.

In October 2001, the Predator was deployed to Afghanistan to provide intelligence and a strike capability to Operation Enduring Freedom. The aircraft helped the Pentagon assess battle damage and sort out the chaos of the Afghan battlefield.

The newest and most advanced UAS in operation is the Global Hawk, a high-altitude, high-endurance UAS with an integrated sensor system that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. This autonomous UAS carries a 2,000-pound, state-of-the-art sensor and conveys the astonishing ability to operate at altitudes in excess of 60,000 feet for 30-plus hours.

Last autumn, U.S.-led air and missile strikes against the al Qaeda terrorist network and Taliban regime in Afghanistan were preceded by the first operational deployment of the Global hawk. The aircraft was used for reconnaissance prior to the strikes and for post-strike battle damage assessment. The Global Hawk’s development phase was accelerated so it could be placed into the field; it has now become one of America’s most valuable reconnaissance assets.

Despite Congress’ predilection for “the other white meat,” anachronistic military assets that hark back to the Cold Ware are undergoing a tough-minded review by Defense chief Donald Rumsfeld. The expectation is that innovative military assets — notably, UAS — will be pushed through development and placed into the field, where they can make a difference.

That’s good news for small defense contractors like Schweizer Aircraft, whose joint venture with Northrop Grumman on the VTUAV promises to open new markets for the manufacturer.

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