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Unmanned Combat Air Systems: A New Kind of Carrier Aviation

Unmanned Combat Air Systems: A New Kind of Carrier Aviation by Norman Friedman. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 304 pp.

Dr. Norman Friedman’s Unmanned Combat Air Systems takes a theoretical approach to addressing the role of pilotless aircraft in tomorrow’s Navy. Friedman’s discussion focuses on the concept of the unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) operating in swarms involving multiple aircraft cycling to and from their host carrier. They cooperatively utilize their sensors in a networked environment, increasing processing power to determine the optimum means to engage a target. According to Friedman, humans will have a decreased role in this environment in making operational employment decisions, as “control is distributed between the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).” Friedman contends that while individual UAVs have limited ordnance and fuel, the swarm as a group represents a “sustainable air presence capable of mounting strikes as they are required” (p. 4).

          The heart of Friedman’s argument is that current airpower applications require aircraft to spend much of their time transiting to mission areas, resulting in pilot fatigue. Unmanned aircraft operating in a primarily autonomous mode do not require a human pilot, so fatigue is not a factor—a distinct advantage over their manned counterparts. Without the pilot and associated life-support systems, more fuel and ordnance can be carried. Further cost savings accrue from the lack of training mission requirements.

          A valuable inclusion in Unmanned Combat Air Systems is the comprehensive inventory of military air vehicles. This appendix is the largest single section of the book and provides a detailed breakout of each nation’s combat air vehicles.

          Unmanned Combat Air Systems attempts to expound on the future role of UCASs in the US Navy. The author’s ideas of networking sensors together in a collaborative environment, while interesting, is not new. The text is repetitive and appears to lack focus with topics, such as repeated discussion of pilot fatigue. While this reviewer acknowledges the book is theoretical, the author falls short of proving his point by repeatedly using phases such as “would most likely be able to” or “probably.” While there is certainly no definite conclusion as to what combat capabilities a UCAS will bring to the battlefield, a more affirmative presentation of the author’s theory would have strengthened his case.

Additionally, the book is marred by conceptual errors. As justification for the need for a human in the loop when presenting the idea that UCASs are better for air-to-air missions, Friedman sights how a “lack of pilot judgment proved disastrous in the 1988 Vincennes incident” (p. 7) where the “problem reflected unstated assumptions in the way in which the fighter’s cockpit displays [used to display position information] worked” (p. 54). The USS Vincennes was a Navy surface warship that shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, not an airplane with a pilot. Thus, it is unclear how a lack of pilot judgment resulted in the shoot down or if this example makes a UAV less suited for this mission.

          Friedman’s UCAS argument is also flawed in the air-to-ground arena, where he claims that in “actual warfare” future UAVs would be well suited for this mission because weapons “are guided to set coordinates” (p. 7). This concept is counter to the human role in providing safe deconfliction when troops are in contact. Friedman later appears to contradict this earlier argument when discussing the accidental bombing of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, noting that most targets in Afghanistan are “pop-ups” and that this is the most likely scenario in the future: hard-to-identify pop-up targets. He offers no solution as to how a UCAS would solve this problem and only notes that the target will be “far less difficult . . . as long as systems like GPS work” (p. 54).

             While exposing the reader to the theoretical concept of US Navy carrier aviation becoming primarily UCAS-based, Unmanned Combat Air Systems disappointingly falls well short of its target. The work appears to both repeat and contradict itself. The author’s arguments are not clearly presented, thus leaving the reader confused. The appendix on the world’s military combat air vehicles is helpful but does not overcome the flaws in the earlier text. Bottom line, the book fails to convince the reader that “Unmanned Combat Air Systems” are “a new kind of carrier aviation.”

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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