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Persistence in Airpower

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Tyler Jackson

While a great deal of focus has been placed on the kinetic and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), their ability to remain present in the battlespace is their most important attribute. As manned aircraft can only maintain a persistent presence by steadily rotating multiple aircraft, unmanned platforms can achieve the same effect with fewer airframes. In particular, the physiological constraints of the pilots and aircrew are the most immediate limiting factor of a weapon system.[1] By physically removing the human pilot from the airframe, MALE UAVs can maintain nearly continuous flight operations, enabling it to conduct an exponential rate of associated effects.[2]

Unmanned aerial vehicles saw a deliberate increase in their usage throughout the Global War On Terror (GWOT). The catalyst was the adoption of General Stanley McChrystal’s “unblinking eye” concept, a method of ISR collection that relied primarily on unmanned aircraft across the joint force. By providing his task force, as well as the U.S.-led coalition in Central Command (CENTCOM), with the ability to gain information superiority, the ‘unblinking eye’ created an insatiable demand for ISR platforms by every geographic combatant command (GCC).[3] Its success was largely propelled by the persistence that MALE UAVs provided. With the ability to both employ weapons and collect intel, MALE UAVs afforded combatant commanders the capacity to conduct continuous combat air patrols, which meant there were more opportunities to identify targets and employ kinetic and non-kinetic weapons to deny, disrupt, degrade, and destroy them.

Although precision strike and intelligence collection capabilities are not unique, the ability to maintain a persistent presence over the battlespace truly sets MALE UAVs apart from their manned counterparts. While both manned aircraft and UAVs utilize hellfire missiles, laser-guided bombs, and even joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), remotely piloted platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper repeatedly find, fix, and ultimately finish targets due to their ability to loiter for long periods of time. For example, the latest MQ-9 designs have achieved a standard airborne endurance of over 40 hours without aerial refueling.[4] Although satellites and aerial platforms like the RC-135 variants and P-8 Poseidon fill critical ISR requirements, MQ-9s remain in high demand. Combatant commanders value their continuity of target prosecution and multi-mission capabilities, which facilitate rapid re-tasking at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, their persistence drastically overshadows the endurance capabilities of most of the military’s manned aircraft fleet, save for the stealth bomber.[5] Even the newest long-range manned aircraft only conduct missions over 20 hours by exception.[6] The ‘unblinking eye’ is rarely interrupted, if only by hazardous weather or routine maintenance issues. Thus, the persistence of MALE UAVs directly addresses some of the perceived shortfalls of airpower by military strategists, such as the “brevity of presence” and the ephemerality of airplanes.[7]

While unmanned platforms have been used for decades, their full potential has not been understood until recently.  During the Vietnam War, the US used remote drones to locate North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites.[8] Recognizing the need to augment the limited coverage provided by satellites, experts in the Reagan administration called for the creation of high-fidelity UAVs to cover the intelligence gaps.[9] What sets current MALE UAVs apart from their predecessors is the fact that their constant presence now serves as a form of strategic deterrence. General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., former U.S. CENTCOM Commander, stated to the House Armed Services Committee in April 2021 that the persistence provided by the MQ-9 resulted in a “deterring effect on Iran” and potentially thwarted “several imminent attacks” because Iran knew they were constantly being watched.[10]

This consistent presence can have geo-political implications, especially in hotly contested regions like the South China Sea and global thoroughfares for commerce like the Strait of Hormuz, where militaries around the globe have come to realize the benefits of medium-altitude UAVs. According to the U.S. Air Force, “UAVs accentuate the core tenets of persistence, flexibility, and versatility,” but one cannot assume that aerial persistence is a birthright unique to the U.S. military and its allies.[11] Recognizing the benefits, China and Iran have developed their own MALE UAVs.[12] The next generation of UAVs will be more collaborative, autonomous, and multiplicative than their predecessors. Yet, as future autonomous aircraft achieve operational status, persistence should undoubtedly remain a top priority. Even for the smaller platforms that will make up future drone swarms, persistence will continue to be a fundamental tenet. For example, China’s Divine Eagle UAV is projected to “allow for more persistent AEW coverage, as well as offer more distributed and redundant capability.”[13] Therefore, the U.S. military must continue pursuing greater persistence over its potential adversaries because it creates increased awareness, which can either deter unwanted actions or provide opportunities to exploit an adversary’s weaknesses.  


Lieutenant Colonel Tyler Jackson
Lt Col Jackson is a U.S. Air Force officer. He is a graduate of Howard University, the University of Oklahoma, and a recent graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School.


[1.] Eduardo Rosa, Eugene Lyskov, Mikael Grönkvist, Roger Kölegård, Nickals Dahlström, Igor Knez, Robert Ljung and Johan Willander, “Cognitive Performance, Fatigue, Emotional, and Physiological Strains in Simulated Long-Duration Flight Missions,” Military Psychology 34, no. 2 (2022),

[2.] National Research Council, Autonomous Vehicles in Support of Naval Operations (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005),

[3.] Kristina Hummel, “Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from General (Ret) Joseph Votel, Former Commander of U.S. Central Command,” CTC Sentinel 14, no. 7 (September 2021),

[4.] “MQ-9B SkyGuardian,” General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., accessed September 11, 2023,

[5.] Mel Deaile, “Inside the Longest Bomber Run Ever,” USO, December 10, 2014,

[6.] Air Mobility Command Public Affairs, “KC-46A Flies 36-Hour, Record-Breaking Endurance Mission,” November 18, 2022,

[7.] Tami Davis Biddle Dr, Air Power and Warfare: A Century of Theory and History (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2019), 3, ; Philip S. Meilinger, “Ten Propositions Regarding Airpower” Airpower Journal 10, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 2,

[8.] David Axe, “In 1966, U.S. Air Force Drones Tricked North Vietnamese Missileers Into Giving Up Their Secrets,” The National Interest, April 27, 2020,

[9.] Thomas P. Ehrhard, Air Force UAV’s: The Secret History (Arlington, VA: Mitchell Institute Press, 2010), 14,

[10.] U. S. Congress, House, Committee on Armed Services, National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activities in the Greater Middle East and Africa, 117th Cong., April 20, 2021,

[11.] U.S. Department of the Air Force, United States Air Force RPA Vector: Vision and Enabling Concepts 2013-2038 (Washington, DC: Department of the Air Force, 2014), 11,

[12.] Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell, “Iran Unveils Armed Drone Resembling America’s MQ-9 Reaper,” AP News, August 22, 2023,

[13.] Rick Joe, “China’s Growing High-End Military Drone Force,” The Diplomat, November 27, 2019

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