We should encourage our European allies to go to drones as the next natural move
By Christopher Whyte Best Defense office of unmanned history The question of whether or not the increasing deployment of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is going to radically alter the nature of warfare and weapons development in the world has been given a number of different answers recently. Noel Sharkey argued in the Guardian that ...
By Christopher Whyte
By Christopher Whyte
Best Defense office of unmanned history
The question of whether or not the increasing deployment of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is going to radically alter the nature of warfare and weapons development in the world has been given a number of different answers recently.
Noel Sharkey argued in the Guardian that minimal risk and advancing drone technologies will lead to a global unmanned arms race. My colleague Joseph Singh countered by pointing out that narrow focus and still-considerable expense means that drone forces will likely remain in niche roles, with great powers realizing that peer competitors will probably be able to deploy effective airspace defenses to counteract unmanned threats. But regardless of which point of view one subscribes to, the truth is that drones are quickly becoming a viable option for many countries looking to expand military capabilities.
To date, drones have proven to be effective in non-traditional theaters of war like Iraq and Afghanistan, performing in reconnaissance and strike roles alike to support anti-militant and other asymmetrical mission profiles. And though there has also been a clear move towards "navalizing" UCAVs, it is fairly clear that such platforms won’t replace traditional manned combat platforms at sea wholesale anytime soon. The challenge of both taking such technologies from research to operational readiness and of replacing existing assets virtually ensures that any transition en masse to a drone-centric force posture will happen long-term, and would represent a major paradigmatic shift.
So what practical impact will drones have on the global military balance in the next couple of decades? One answer is simple. UCAVs in their present form may, and should, have most impact in the near-term as a tool for the U.S. to devolve commitments and to encourage the development of security forces that can effectively meet a number of challenges.
In particular, the U.S. should be encouraging allies in Europe and other relatively stable regions to develop and deploy drone technologies over other conventional aerial platforms. Poland’s recent announcement that its near-obsolete bomber fleet will be replaced by three squadrons of combat drones in the next few years shows that such a move can be politically feasible. Moreover, the strategic incentives to go for drones are fairly clear. With the "pivot" to Asia underway, America is perceived to be moving both its policy focus and the bulk of its preponderant military strength from Europe and the Middle East towards the Pacific. And though Europe does not face threats as great as it did during the Cold War, there is still a need to maintain the regional capacity to respond to crises like those in Libya or, potentially, Syria.
The upshot of Europe’s needs and Washington’s move to rebalance in the Pacific is, of course, that the potential political, logistical, and financial steps needed to support a major operation in any of the theaters surrounding Europe become increasingly complex over time. Pushing allies to take a greater role in providing for regional security would largely solve that issue, but financial constraints and diminished popular backing for increasing military spending has meant that coordinating such an effort has been difficult.
The proliferation of drones to fill particular conventional roles in the militaries of Europe’s security stakeholders could change that. UCAVs are significantly cheaper than conventional manned fighters. Moreover, UCAV effectiveness has proven to be contextual, with drones from the Predator to the Global Hawk thriving in environments where airspace is not heavily disputed and missions draw up short of invasive campaign.
This profile of capabilities clearly fits the needs of America’s European allies, with the majority of the continent’s near-term security challenges likely to revolve around the need to target asymmetrical threats or to protect civilians in civil warzones. Indeed, considering the general paucity of instances in which European military forces have had to engage advanced air defenses in recent years, it could be said that reliance on expensive manned aerial platforms for reconnaissance and strike operations is wasteful.
It is also the case that removing the human element from allies’ air force operations could lead to reduced reliance on American military power and more balanced partner commitments. Though drone forces would still act in concert with smaller numbers of conventional manned fighters to penetrate defended airspace, a greater percentage of the risk involved in militarily intervening would be taken up by unmanned units.
This could reduce domestic aversion to involvement in international interventions amongst alliance partners and increase the action potential of those European countries that have traditionally played smaller roles in coalition campaigns.
The proliferation of UCAVs in their present form could even bolster the effectiveness of Europe’s navies. Though the transition towards entirely-unmanned air wings and the infrastructural move away from manned combat aircraft is likely years away, the use of select drone platforms like the Sea Avenger could bring some of these advantages of cost, operational flexibility and willingness to the naval air forces of countries like Britain, France and Spain.
Ultimately, the broad deployment of UCAVs in the militaries of those partners left behind in the "pivot" makes substantive sense. Policymakers in Washington should realize that encouraging drone development could be a boon to U.S. security endeavors, and that unmanned platform could allow alliance partners in Europe to both maintain operational effectiveness and reduce costs.
Christopher Whyte is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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