January 17, 2012: A century after aerial reconnaissance first revolutionized warfare, another radical new aerial technology is taking air recon to a new level. That level is low, a few hundred meters off the ground. It all began in the American military during the last decade. The aircraft are the nearly 6,000 small (under ten kg/11 pounds) UAVs in use by ground troops. Traditional U.S. military aviators, and the 10,000 manned aircraft they operate, are somewhat disdainful of these tiny, unmanned, aircraft. But for the troops on the ground, they are a lifesaver and the key to many victories. This sort of thing has happened before.
During World War I (1914-18), when aerial reconnaissance first became a major factor in military operations, it was quickly noted that regular flights over the enemy, despite the risk of getting shot down, provided invaluable information. It wasn't just what the human observer noted, but photographs of what was down there. Reasonably cheap and reliable aircraft only began to appear a few years before World War I began. This was not surprising, as the first flight of a heavier-than-air aircraft only took place in 1903. The war spurred even more aircraft innovation. But then, and now, the principal job of aircraft was to be the eyes of the ground forces. The fighters were to protect friendly recon aircraft and attack the enemies. Bombers were consistently oversold, and the air force partisans could never accept the fact that bombing was an adjunct to reconnaissance, not the primary mission of the air forces.
Just as the first recon aircraft a century ago changed the way armies fought, the micro-UAVs have changed the way small units of soldiers fight. A century ago the aerial observers reported to generals and their staffs. UAV video goes to platoon or company commanders, or the leader of a small Special Forces team.
The lightweight, hand launched Raven UAV can only stay airborne about an hour per sortie, but troops have found that this is enough time to do all sorts of useful work, even when there's no fighting going on. This is most of the time.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the enemy did not want to confront U.S. troops directly (this tends to get you killed). So there was an unceasing effort to set up ambushes, plant mines and roadside bombs, and fire rockets or mortars at American bases. All of these activities can be messed with by using Raven. U.S. troops know to think like the enemy, and quickly figured out the best ambush positions, or places to plant mines or fire rockets. By sending Ravens over these spots periodically the enemy is put in danger of being spotted. The enemy knows that usually leads to a prompt attack from American mortars or helicopter gunships. These mind games, of sneaking around trying to get a shot off at the Americans, is more stressful and dangerous if the U.S. troops have Ravens. And most of them do.
The U.S. Army has over 5,000 RQ-11 Raven UAVs. This two kilogram (4.4 pound) aircraft is popular with combat and non-combat troops alike. The army has developed better training methods, which enables operators to get more out of Raven. Combat troops use it for finding and tracking the enemy, while non-combat troops use it for security (guarding bases or convoys). In both cases, troops have come to use the Raven for more than just getting a look over the hill or around the corner. The distinctive noise of Raven overhead is very unpopular with the enemy below and is often used to scare the enemy away, or make him move to where he can be spotted.
The current model, the Raven B (RQ-11B), was introduced five years ago, a year after the original Raven entered service in large numbers. This UAV is inexpensive ($35,000 each) and can stay in the air for 80 minutes at a time. The Raven is battery powered (and largely silent unless flown close to the ground). It carries a color day vidcam, or a two color infrared night camera. It can also carry a laser designator. Both cameras broadcast real time video back to the operator, who controls the Raven via a handheld controller, which uses a hood to shield the display from direct sunlight (thus allowing the operator to clearly see what is down there). The Raven can go as fast as 90 kilometers an hour but usually cruises at between 40 and 50. It can go as far as 15 kilometers from its controller, and usually flies a preprogrammed route, using GPS for navigation.
The Raven is made of Kevlar, the same material used in helmets and protective vests. On average, Raven can survive about 200 landings before it breaks something. While some Ravens have been shot down, the most common cause of loss is losing the communications link (as the aircraft flies out of range) or a software/hardware failure on the aircraft. Combat losses have been high, as nearly 20,000 have been built and most of those have been lost in training or the battlefield.
From the very beginning, the Raven changed the way troops fight. With the bird's eye view of the battlefield, commanders can move their troops more quickly, confident that they won't be ambushed, and often with certain knowledge of where the unseen enemy is. The big advantage with Raven is that it’s simple, reliable, and it just works. A complete system (controller, spare parts, and three UAVs) costs $250,000. The UAV can be quickly taken apart and put into a backpack. It takes off by having the operator start the motor, and then throwing it. This can be done from a moving vehicle and the Raven is a popular recon tool for convoys. It lands by coming in low and then turning the motor off. Special Forces troops like to use it at night, because the enemy can’t see it, and often can’t hear it either.
The controller allows the operator to capture video, or still pictures, and transmit them to other units or a headquarters. The operator often does this while the Raven is flying a pre-programmed pattern (using GPS). The operator can have the UAV stop and circle, in effect keeping the camera on the same piece of ground below. The operator can also fly the Raven, which is often used when pursuing hostile gunmen.
Raven, and nearly a thousand slightly larger UAVs, don't get much publicity, but they have a larger impact on combat than the few hundred much larger (Shadow, Predator, Reaper) UAVs. These big, and often armed, UAVs carry out vital missions, but comprise a tenth of the airtime that the micro-UAVs rack up. Moreover, these smaller UAVs have opened up lots of other possibilities. There are already small, single use UAVs that are basically guided bombs. Even smaller UAVs can be used for spying, as well as battlefield recon. These little aircraft are having an enormous impact on warfare, rivaling what happened a century ago.