Although the methodology and technology of warfare had evolved together with human civilization, the main ideas of preparation, preemption, intelligence collection and overall awareness of enemy’s capabilities remain relevant today just as two thousand years ago. The aim of the current research is to investigate a specific issue of intelligence and surveillance, meaning the influence of the modern Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) on the aerial surveillance. In this context, a specific issue of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as means of surveillance collection is discussed in the framework of its benefits and possible challenges for the future intelligence and subsequently future warfare. The central thesis of the paper is that irrespective of numerous advantages of UAV surveillance, in order to keep high readiness of the intelligence cycle and military service in general, traditional manned aircrafts’ surveillance should be preserved and developed according to technological capabilities.
Key words: surveillance, Revolution in Military Affairs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Surveillance
In the development of human civilization, there were numerous aspects of human life style and world perception which had changed through ages and evolved together with humanity. One of the things which remained essentially unchanged is the nature of war and ways of its conduct. Although methodology and technology of warfare had evolved together with the human civilization, the main ideas of preparation, preemption, intelligence collection and overall awareness of enemy’s capabilities remain relevant today just as two thousand years ago. That is why the corner stone of Sun Tzu’s art of war was ability of a commander to know his own capacity and have enough of intelligence to evaluate capabilities of an enemy (Kane & Lonsdale, 2012).
This statement remains relevant even today. What had significantly changed are methods and means of data collection. The aim of the current research is to investigate a specific issue of intelligence and surveillance, meaning the influence of the modern Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) on the aircraft surveillance conduct. In this context, a specific issue of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as means of surveillance is discussed in the framework of its benefits and possible challenges for the future intelligence and subsequently warfare. The central thesis of the paper is that, irrespective of numerous advantages of UAV surveillance conduct, in order to keep high readiness of the intelligence cycle and military mechanism, traditional manned aircrafts’ surveillance should be preserved and developed according to technological capabilities. The structure of the paper consists of the overall description of how modern information age RMA influenced intelligence and aerial surveillance. Then benefits and possible challenges of UAVs in the surveillance will be outlined. In between, the practical application of UAVs by US army will mentioned. Finally, the appropriate conclusions will be given in the end of the paper.
The impact of RMA on aerial surveillance.
What might be the impact of information age RMA on aircraft surveillance? From the first glance, the answer might be simple and obvious. Since the essence of the current RMA is substantial “application of information technology to the military affairs”, the main influence of it on aerial surveillance is additional attention to it and subsequent technological improvement of the field (Kane & Lonsdale, 2012, p. 73). This tendency had two impacts on the aerial surveillance. First of all, the importance of data collection and meaning of the information gathered became more acknowledged than it used to be on the official/political level, which meant more funding could be spent on it (Best, 2011, p. 13). This brought attention to the ways data was collected and processed. In this context, new researches were conducted in the fields of Automatic Dependant Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B)1, connecting airborne and ground systems of surveillance conduct; potential usage of ADS-B from High Altitude Platform System2 and even development of space-based ADS-B for both military purposes and Air Traffic Management3. Thus, in this context, RMA contributed to the development and technologies for the improvement of the very process of surveillance conduct and its connection with the ground and other services interested in its results (Keating, 2011).
The second impact of the RMA on the field of aerial surveillance is modification and improvement of the technology of surveillance aircrafts. In this context, the tendency followed two directions. In the first case, the traditional post-Cold War surveillance aircrafts were improved and developed (Ferris, 2005). They were usually quite big and slow. The main impact of RMA on them was that they were supplied with the new, more sensitive sensors (Ferris, 2005).). The most famous aircrafts of this type are the Hawker (American), the Breguet Atlantique (French), the Tupolev Tu-95 (Russian) and Lockheed Neptune (Britsh)4 (Keating, 2011). Except for the slight modification of these large aircrafts, RMA had contributed to the change of their functionality. While, in the past, they were used as universal surveillance aircrafts, today, due to the improvement of information technologies, their main function turned to be regular, maritime patrolling. This function can be compared to two other essential ones which surveillance aircrafts might conduct, meaning law enforcement, airspace and battlefield surveillances (Ferris, 2005).
On the other hand, RMA had contributed to technological improvement of the UAVs and their mass application in the battlefield surveillance and collection of the new types of intelligence – electronic (ELINT) (Keating, 2011). It was acknowledged that some surveillance aircrafts, both piloted and UAVs were modified for the collection of ELINT. By ELINT is meant all other signals intelligence retrieved from electronic monitoring, which is not communication intelligence (COMINT) (Kane & Lonsdale, 2012). On this, Kane and Lonsdale wrote:
“Locating a radar site by tracing its emissions back to their sources is a classic
example of this practice. Some practitioners refer to a subcategory of ELINT known
as radar intelligence or RADINT” (Kane & Lonsdale, 2012, p. 90).
The reason why RMA can be considered the reason for UAVs development is a tendency of continuous technological improvement and changeability of informational and military environments. Since intelligence as means of warfare planning is crucial for the final victorious outcome, efficient data collection in the global environment and processing of huge amount of information under conditions of scarce human resources and natural limits of time/space, become the main source of success. Technological improvement becomes essential for the resolution of this problem (Ferris, 2005). Subsequently, since old-fashioned models of piloted surveillance aircrafts could not cover all the required workload of data collection, new technologies had to give a new answer to the question. In this context, new wars triggered the necessity of such technologies development and immediate application, which can be seen on the example of UAVs surveillance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Keating, 2011).
Advantages of UAVs.
In order to understand the meaning of UAVs for the improvement of surveillance, it should be outlined what is meant under surveillance and what it specifically required in context of aerial surveillance. In terms of this work, the most useful would be American notion of surveillance, the way it is outlined in the dictionary of the Department of Defense5, meaning:
“Surveillance is the systematic observation of airspace, surface or subsurface areas,
places, persons o things, by visual, aural, electronic, photographic and other means ”
(as in Best, 2011, p.7).
The corner stone of this term is systematic observation, which requires permanency of observation and attention to all possible details. Coming to this point, in order to understand the meaning of UAVs for the surveillance, it should be outlined what its advantages are and how they fit into the overall picture of systematic approach to data collection.
First of all, UAV contributes to the constancy of surveillance conduct. This is achieved by the fact that there is no pilot on board. In other words, surveillance collection can be conducted with minimal uncertainty, which usually corresponds to unpredictability of human factor, meaning the pilot (Kane & Lonsdale, 2012). In this context, it is meant that UAV is capable of collecting data irrespective of human exhaustion factor - decline of efficiency and concentration with time (Ferris, 2005). UAV can stay in the air for around 20-28 hours, carrying concrete, repetitive data collection (Pustam, 2002). Thus, from this perspective, surveillance would benefit from UAV because of constancy and long-termed period of observation. In its turn, it would eliminate the possibility of missing minor data due to the fact of exhaustion (Pustam, 2002).
Secondly, unlike human pilot aircrafts, UAV is capable of collecting data irrespective of the changes in the surrounding environment. In this context is meant that it may enter environment which might be dangerous for manned aircrafts. Thus, UAV would collect data irrespective of the level of hazards in the surrounding environment (Scharre, 2011). For the surveillance, this means that relevant and up-to-date data would be collected irrespective of uncertainty and changeability of the surrounding environment (Keating, 2011). Although this statement may seem obvious and trivial, for intelligence and aerial surveillance this means that military capacity of the country increases significantly6. The reason is that the greatest problem of intelligence is lack of relevant and constant data about target, which is usually conditioned by uncertainty of the environment and human factor (Pustam, 2002). Since uncertainty of the environment and human factor cannot be changed, the technology of aircraft surveillance should be modified to evade these limitations. UAV is such technology and it is a revolution in aerial surveillance (Scharre, 2011).
Except for the two mentioned above factors, aerial intelligence had to deal with one more problem of data collection, which might be derived from the first two – continuity of data transference to the ground unit or headquarter (Pustam, 2002). In this context, there are two issues to address. First of all, the data might not reach the ground unit due to the uncertainty of environment and human factor. Secondly, in case, when the contact with ground center is lost, the mission might be under threat due to the lack of orders (Keating, 2011). UAV manages to resolve both of these problems. In the first case, the transaction data becomes less dependent on uncertainty rather on technology of transfer and its accuracy. Since the problem of data transfer becomes simply a technical matter and is no longer of human unpredictability factor, it can be resolved through the scientific exploration and subsequent technological improvement (Unmanned aerial warfare, 2011). Since the application of the UAV became popular mainly in the last two wars, the technological improvement of its top efficiency is still in progress (Scharre, 2011).
Concerning the lack of contact with the ground centre, UAV can be easily programmed to finish the mission automatically and transfer data to the same ground centre or any other facility if the need arises (Pustam, 2002). In such way, the 100% efficiency of surveillance conduct might be accomplished and the target of military awareness of the latest surveillance on the subject would be achieved. Although some argue that efforts used for the delivery and collection of data might exceed its value, history shows that data cannot be treated carelessly, especially when one has army base close to the enemy’s territory or when the enemy is the global terrorism (Keating, 2011).
Theory meets reality.
The main critical point of all mentioned above might be the fact that discussed advantages of the UAV reflect theoretical, academic argument on the topic, and one might justly assume that, irrespective of theoretical justification of the revolutionary meaning of UAV in aerial surveillance, its practical application might be of entirely opposite nature (Ferris, 2005). In fact, this assumption is a good one, but can be easily refuted by the last two American campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The meaning of UAV applicability and efficiency in aerial surveillance was discussed in the recent report to the American Congress on the topic of “Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) acquisition” (Best, 2011).
The findings of the report showed that UAVs proved to be extremely helpful in surveillance and intelligence conduct, not to speak of their tactical application in the battlefield7. The spreading of UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan “helped in meeting the objectives of identifying elusive enemies and avoiding civilian causalities” (Best, 2011, p. 10). Particular feature is that UAVs were meant to be experimental and additional assistance in the surveillance operations, but after their application and high level of information accuracy, the emphasis had changed towards their permanent status and subsequent increase of deployment (Keating, 2011). This statement can be proved by simple calculation – while, in 2002, only 167 UAVs were deployed, by the end of 2008, the number had increased to 6,000 (Scharre, 2011).
The mentioned above figures are of specific importance not only because they show practical efficiency of UAVs, but also the future of aerial surveillance and aerial intelligence in general. In this context, more emphasis will be placed exactly on the application of UAVs due to the mentioned above advantages and technological development (Scharre, 2011). This statement can be proved by the tendency in American spending on the issue. In the period between 2000 and 2008, the American defense investments in Unmanned Aerial Systems8 (UAS) increased from $284 million to $2.5 billion, which is basically nine times of the initial amount (Best, 2011, p. 10).
American emphasis on the issue and subsequent spending might be considered as indirect confirmation of UAV efficiency and advantageous status in comparison to man airborne systems of ISR (Keating, 2011). In fact, the issue of UAVs’ advantages is no longer under question for American decision makers. Since the attention is not paid to pro and cons of the employment of UAVs but to the improvement of technology, this makes it even more advanced according to the changing political and military environments. American Air Force perception of UAVs is summarized in “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047”. The essence of the report is the following:
“description of the family of UAS ranging from man-portable vehicles to larger,
Tanker-sized platforms. Therefore the goal is to acquire “a common set of airframes
within a family of systems with interoperable, modular ‘plug and play’ payloads, with
standard interfaces””9 (as cited in Best, 2011, p.12).
What this means for surveillance, including aerial one, is that systematic approach to the data collection becomes much far reaching than it was initially meant to be. With the development of UAVs and their further advancement, surveillance becomes not just a systematic collection of the relevant data, but rather the issue of technological race of who can gets data in fastest and the most efficient way in the due time and place for a proper decision-making process (Kane & Lonsdale, 2012).
Disadvantages of UAVs.
This part of research is going to be much shorter than the previous two, mainly because disadvantages of UAVs application are conditioned mainly by the future development of technology rather than current capabilities. The main disadvantage of the UAV surveillance operations is that they prove to be efficient under conditions when they are not practically hit by the opposite part. Although this refers also to the manned aircrafts, in case of the last, the level of maneuverability is much higher due to the presence of the conscious human being on board, who is capable of taking immediate decisions (Scharre, 2011). It can be argued that the distanced piloting of UAVs has the same outcome, but the problem is in latency, meaning that there is a small delay between sending of the instructions from the remote pilot to the UAV and its subsequent response (Unmanned aerial warfare, 2011). Thus, survivability of the UAVs might be lower than of manned aircrafts. For the surveillance, it would mean loss of the data expected in the due time and in the right place for the analysis (Keating, 2011).
In the context of the possibility of UAVs bringing down, the level of enemy’s capabilities should be taken into account. In this case, one of the reasons why UAVs became so popular and efficient in Afghanistan and Iraq was the fact that the local insurgents did not have open access to the anti-aircraft weapons as it was the case in Yugoslavia (Pustam, 2002). One of the reasons why UAVs proved to be useless in Kosovo was that insurgents applied Russian anti-aircraft weaponry to bring down UAVs (Keating, 2011). It was also assumed that under conditions of manned aircrafts the number of failures was lower than among UAVs due to the higher maneuverability of manned aircrafts (Unmanned aerial warfare, 2011).
Getting to the dimension of the future perspectives of technological development, it should be assumed that since UAVs are of no direct control from the pilot on board, at certain point, the control over them might be taken away (Scharre, 2011). What will prevent terrorists or insurgents from attacking the platform and obtaining control over UAVs which might be even miles away? What if technological development comes to the point when a regular hacker could crack the system and just get needed control if not over the piloting of the UAV than at least the real time data it collected? How one can be protected from the application of UAVs against its creators? These are concerns which come into mind even without addressing the possible of development of artificial intelligence for the application in UAVs (Ferris, 2005).
In the context of the futuristic disadvantages of UAVs application in surveillance, the old-fashioned manned aircrafts surveillance becomes more and more attractive in sense of reliability, although it contradicts with human unpredictability. On the other hand, this unpredictability and ability to make independent choices usually contributes to the successful outcomes of the most unpredictable situations. For the surveillance, manned aircraft might add new information and subsequent analytical conclusions due to the fact that both surrounding environment and human pilot are unpredictable; thus, pilot can accommodate to the changeable environment, while UAV might not be capable of that (Pustam, 2002).
Instead of conclusions.
The main conclusion for this research is that irrespective of the fact that UAV surveillance has numerous advantages over manned aircrafts, they are rather situational than universal. Since the future conflicts and the level of technological development cannot be entirely predicted, complete substitution of surveillance conducted by manned aircrafts with UAVs might become future weakness of the army rather than its biggest advantage. In this context, parallel development of UAV and manned surveillance aircrafts would be the most rational and cautious way of aerial surveillance coping with the advancement of information age RMA.
Best, R.A. (2011, December 27). Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)
Acquisition: Issues for Congress. CRS Report for Congress. Retrieved from
Ferris, J.R. (2005). Intelligence and Strategy: Selected Essays. London, LD: Routledge.
Kane, T. & Lonsdale, D. (2012). Understanding Contemporary Strategy. London, LD:
Keating, T.J. (2011). Joint and National Intelligence Support to Military Operations. Darby,
Pustam, A.R (2002). Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Trends and Prospects, Military technology,
Scharre, P. (2011). Why Unmanned?, Joint Force Quarterly, 61(2), 89-93.
Unmanned aerial warfare: Flight of the drones. The Economist, October 8th 2011. Retrieved