Warplanes: March 7, 2002

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The Afghan War has seen the first widespread use of drones armed with missiles to attack ground targets, and it was the CIA not the military which did it. This should not be surprising; the military aviation community is run by pilots who see armed drones as threats to their jobs. Drones have many advantages. They are cheaper (lacking all of the gear that a pilot needs) and can be sent on suicide missions. The normal risk of combat flying for manned aircraft leaves pilots suffering in POW camps, adding a political complication to any war. Combat drones could pull 20 "G"s (the limit imposed by the materials available to build airframes) while human pilots are limited to about 9 Gs. During peacetime, drone pilots can train on simulators while their expensive drones sit in storage without requiring expensive maintenance. Relatively junior drone pilots could fly their aircraft to the target area where senior ace pilots (fresh from the cafeteria rather than a boring two-hour flight) can make the final attack. Drones (without human pilots and the heavy equipment they need) could be pushed to Mach-15 while human pilots can barely handle aircraft a Mach-3. The smaller drones can be made much more stealthy, not least because the cockpit is a major radar trap requiring expensive treatments to reduce its effect. Pilots insist that even if drones can take over attack missions, they could never handle air-to-air combat, but such combat is becoming extremely rare. It lasted only a few days over Iraq in 1991, and there was none over the Balkans or Afghanistan. New generations of deadly air-to-air missiles with huge "no escape zones" would mean that even unmaneuverable drones could sweep the skies of the enemy's older fighters.--Stephen V Cole

 


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