:: August 2011 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Frequent Air Vehicle Inhabitants,

UAVs punch above their weight on the battlefield, but more so in public attention. The only aircraft stories in the daily paper A section, it seems, feature UAVs. Fighter sales, commercial jet orders, and even air strikes get little press. Targeted assassinations by drones, however, get top billing. Like the general public, the aerospace industry is preoccupied with UAVs as if they were the second coming of JSF. At Teal Group, weíve got three people working on our annual UAV study. So, in the spirit of good management and friendly intra-office politics, Iíll just say: Youíre wasting your time.

Okay, thatís a slight overstatement. UAVs have had a considerable impact on warfare. But from an industrial and financial standpoint, thereís less going on here than you might think. In fact, my aircraft coverage universe has nothing to fear from these winged robots. While UAVs have enjoyed impressive growth and will continue to do so, there has been almost no impact on traditional manned (forgive the sexism) aircraft markets. I donít think there will be any such impact in the next decade. Why? Look at three aircraft segments where UAVs should have had an impact on traditional aircraft, but didnít:

1. Scout helicopters. Should be a no-brainer. They prowl around the battlefield, looking for enemy units that shoot back. Great job for a robot. The Army created the RAH-66 Comanche as the ultimate stealth scout helo, and when it was axed, I thought it might be the first manned aircraft to be cancelled due to drones. I was wrong. Turns out the budget was the culprit. The Army continues to rely on OH-58Ds for scout missions, and Bell is re-starting OH-58D cabin production. Thatís a prelude to building new OH-58Ds, unless the Army selects a different manned helo. Either way, the Army doesnít think drones are fully up to the scout helicopter job. Drones may be useful adjuncts, but pilots remain useful for target verification and for a broad view of the battlefield.

2. High Altitude Strategic Reconnaissance. Replacing the next Francis Gary Powers with a robot looks like a no-brainer too. A decade ago I had thought that UAVs and satellites would imminently replace the U-2. Then I started running into a highly entertaining U-2 pilot at air shows, who assured me he and his colleagues were set to stay gainfully employed. There were plans to retire this amazing Cold War artifact a few years back, but theyíre still with us. Earlier this month, the Air Force said Global Hawks would finally replace the U-2 in 2015. Iím thinking Iíll run into that fun pilot at Farnborough 2016, too. Replacing the U-2 with something just as capable is expensive, and weíre facing a budget crunch. Those U-2s have already been paid for.

3. Signals intelligence (SIGINT). Collecting walkie-talkie squawks and iPod downloads over a battlefield sounds like a UAV no-brainer. That 2001 EP-3 Hainan Island shootdown incident would have been painless with a plane crewed by robots and a kill switch. But the Air Force just took 37 manned SIGINT King Airs under Project Liberty and the Army will get more of these under the Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) program. If anything, the manned SIGINT fleet has grown, so UAVs used for SIGINT havenít affected this manned air market at all. Earlier this month, the Navy said it would replace its EP-3s by 2020 with UAVs, not an EP-8 or another manned solution. As with the U-2ís retirement, believe it when it happens. Having a crew on board makes for a rapidly deployable information management and analysis asset. SIGINT UAVs are just a cluster of antennae and datalinks.

Manned aircraft doing these missions (and some others, like electronic attack) are like phone books. You might think theyíd be extinct, but they arenít. There are solid technical, economic, and operational reasons for this. Which brings up the subject of UCAVs and fighters, the final area where UAVs could in the future (in theory) displace manned aircraft.

The conventional wisdom is that a pilot-driven military culture is the big obstacle in the way of UCAVs. Yet SIGINT turboprop and scout helicopter pilots are not exactly a powerful mafia, and those missions have stayed largely manned. Also, over the past decade thereís been a huge increase in UAV usage, including for strike missions. Yet in a combat environment, manned strike aircraft are still tasked with a very heavy workload. UCAVs simply arenít very capable in terms of payload and on-board sensors. The more capable they get, the less expendable they are Ė who wants to lose a $60 million air vehicle?. The less expendable they are, the more useful pilots are to help ensure that the aircraft returns to base. That factor too complicates Global Hawkís replacement of the U-2.

What accounts for all the UAV hype? In The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, historian David Edgerton defines futurism as the tendency to overrate the impact of dramatic new technologies. UAVs fit that pattern. They arenít a revolution. The daily UAV strikes you read about are an incrementally cheaper way of achieving whatís been done for decades with cruise missiles and other precision munitions. Recon UAVs are an incrementally cheaper way of achieving whatís been done for decades with recon pods, satellites, and observation aircraft.

In short, UAVs are a repeat of the ICBM story.* A new technology that looks like a replacement for an existing technology often turns into an adjunct technology. The significant increase in UAV output over the past few years has layered on top of aircraft production. UAV acquisition will continue to follow that pattern. Capabilities redundancy is bad for accountants, but good for warfighting. UAVs, like ICBMs, bring a new layer of military capabilities without having much of a replacement effect.

Then thereís the oft-mooted civil UAV market. Thereís something there too Ė homeland security and border patrol, to name just two roles, but nothing that will subtract from manned aircraft markets. Think robots will replace pilots on commercial and business transports? Pilots are a tiny part of the operating costs equation. Any savings from replacing them would be more than erased by higher insurance premiums, to say nothing of unmanned system costs.

On a side note, UAVs, like other new technologies, prompt outbursts of utopian silliness. A chief NASA scientist told Aviation Week (July 18, p. 46), ďpeople can live anywhere. They can own 30 acres of mountaintop nowhere near a coastline. People have to be supplied with stuff and we can use small robotic aircraft to do it.Ē Why shouldnít delivering cases of Chateauneuf du Pape to exiled hedge fund managers with 30 acres of mountaintop property be a government priority? Perhaps those Tea Party bozos have a point.

To summarize the position of UAVs, letís do the numbers. Tealís 2011 World UAV Forecast calls for an increase from $3.4 billion in deliveries in 2011 to $8.8 billion in 2020. Tealís latest world aircraft output forecast calls for a rise from $135 billion in 2011 to $190.2 billion in 2020. So, UAV output is worth 2.5% of manned aircraft output today, rising to 4.6% in 2020. Thatís a revolution led by mice.

To end on a more UAV-friendly note, if you just measure manned military aircraft output in 2020 ($41.8 billion), UAV output will be 21% of that. Thatís not nothing. Of course, numbers will be small consolation when robots rule the planet. In the meantime, Teal inhabited aircraft updates this month include the World Rotorcraft Overview, and the C-130, F-22, AS.350, AW139/149, SJ30, and HondaJet. Have a great month.

Yours, ĎTil My Office Doorway Gets A Get Off My Turf Welcome Mat,
Richard Aboulafia

*The following two sentences have been deleted from this letter: The logical role for the ICBM, a kind of ultimate UAV, was to replace strategic bombers as the nuclear strike tool of choice. Yet the B-1, FB-111, and B-2 were built and developed after ICBMs colonized our nationís cornfields. It has been rightly pointed out to me that ICBMs were always conceived of as a supplement to bombers, not as a replacement for them.


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006