SDI Q&A Part 2: The UAVs Role in Military Operations

SDI Q&A Part 2: The UAVs Role in Military Operations

UAVs have proved to be exceedingly useful during peacekeeping missions and the ongoing global war on terror, especially against Islamic State in Iraq, and against the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, finding applications across ISR and combat roles.

Furthermore, enhanced capabilities in areas such as endurance, data processing, and communications have broadened ISR UAV use in both defense and intelligence roles. It is expected that 4,000 different unmanned aircraft platforms are in circulation on the global market.

In the second part of our Analyst Q&A with Strategic Defence Intelligence, Senior Analyst Ruchi Chaturvedi discusses the UAVs role in military operations and what challenges the military UAV market is facing today.

Key Challenges

Q. What are the biggest challenges facing the military UAV markets today and how are market participants responding?

Frequent accidents hinder growth of UAVs globally

The high accident rates of UAVs continue to prevent their widespread deployment across the world. Crashes have been reported from all parts of the world, caused mostly by poor weather, human error, and system failures. These crashes not only lead to a waste of huge money, but can also compromise secret missions. In 2011, an American Sentinel drone crashed in Iran, leading to suspicions regarding the CIA’s efforts to gather intelligence in the country; specifically after Iran’s claim in 2013 that it was able to decode confidential data from the system.

Although UAVs are built to minimize human interference, it is ironic that a number of crashes are caused by human error. Although UAVs have a remote pilot, their ability to deal and judge with adverse flight situations is severely truncated in the absence of important sensory information such as wind speed. In 2012, the UK revealed that the Hermes 450 suffered 11 crashes during a five year period, caused by a combination of human and technical errors. As a result, several changes have been implemented to increase airmanship standards.

Unfavorable weather conditions could also impact a UAVs surveillance capability due to cloudy conditions and high humidity. This is particularly prevalent with regards to UAVs only fitted with an EO camera and forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) as such circumstances can distort the images produced by EO and FLIR equipment.

Restriction of UAV exports by international associations

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has 35 members and was established in 1987 as an informal association of countries seeking to prevent the proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. Founding members included Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US.

The association restricts the export of systems capable of carrying a payload of 500 kilograms for at least 300km, including UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). These export restrictions have hampered some countries’ attempts to export and acquire unmanned systems for their Armed Forces.

Miniaturization emerging to be a major challenge

Mini- and nano-UAVs are gaining prominence in various missions and increasing demand for these systems is putting stress on miniaturization of subsystems such as radars, EO/IR systems, and Electronic Warfare systems. Therefore, miniaturization has become one of the biggest challenges faced by the sector in recent times as militaries around the world are focusing heavily on decreasing the size of aircraft, including UAVs, which is in turn putting enormous pressure on manufacturers as they face a challenge of compromising on performance in order to reduce the size and weight of devices, especially the sensors.

Miniaturization is becoming indispensable in UAVs due to their configuration and the overall weight. EO/IR sensors are mostly infrared-ranged light imaging systems that sense and differentiate between one object and another by the difference in temperature. Therefore, miniaturization, which is primarily a reduction in size and weight, directly compromises the ability of the devices to detect threats that are far away. In most cases, it is almost impossible to not compromise on some aspects of the performance in the EO/IR Systems by reducing the weight or size of the EO/IR sensor.

Austerity measures slowing down procurements

Europe and North America account for an expected 80% of global defense spending; however, these regions were among the hardest hit by the global financial crisis. This has led to austerity measures being introduced by national governments, which in turn have resulted in reduced defense budgets and the cancellation and indefinite delay of various projects that would otherwise have resulted in the sustained procurement of Electronic Warfare (EW) systems. As such, budget cuts have had a mildly detrimental effect on the growth of the EW systems industry.

Countries such as the US, the UK, and Australia, who rely heavily on UAVs for their operations in Afghanistan and bordering areas, have further cut down on costs by reducing spending in areas such as training, service, support and maintenance, and data management related to information received from EW systems installed in these platforms. For example, in 2010 the US Army postponed the upgrade of its Shadow RQ-7B aircraft to a new RQ-7C model indefinitely in order to reduce costs. Furthermore, the French government has also abandoned the Talarion UAV project in order to save development costs.

Potential Role of UAVs in Defense

Q. Do you expect UAVs to take on a more prominent role in military operations?

Security threats posed by defense systems capable of carrying out surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. UAVs provide enhanced coverage along remote sections of a country’s border, and UAVs equipped with electro-optical (EO) sensors can identify images from an altitude of 60,000 feet and provide real-time imagery to a ground control operator. This enables fast and informed decisions to be made regarding the deployment of border patrol agents. UAVs also have a wider range than border security forces on patrol or stationary surveillance equipment, and have a higher probability of tracking illegal immigrants looking to enter a country through dense woods or mountainous terrain.

Additionally, compared to a manned defense system such as a helicopter, UAVs have a longer flight time; the Predator B can fly for 30 hours without refueling, while a helicopter’s average fuel time is an expected two hours. Countries across the globe are therefore investing in the procurement, research, and development of UAVs.

With the face of modern military warfare experiencing a change over the last few years, and the fight against militant groups and terrorist organizations increasing, coalitions between countries and their Armed Forces have become a necessity to address the scale and cost implications of such conflicts. Therefore, combining resources has the potential to reduce the negative impact of military operations on a single nation’s economy. Involving unmanned systems in welfare for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance purposes has definitely resulted in improved awareness for military forces. According to SDI estimates, the global military UAV market is expected to grow at a substantial rate to reach US$13.7 billion by 2026.

Further, in order to increase the capabilities of modern UAVs, the global defense industry is investing significantly in research and development, which has led to the development of technologies to enhance the endurance and survivability of UAVs. Additionally, UAV roles are evolving from intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions to a wide range of capabilities such as electronic attack (EA), strike missions, the suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD), network nodes, communications relays, and combat search and rescue (CSAR).


Despite its challenges, SDI’s growth estimates highlight the immense demand for UAVs in the military market. This is being driven by internal and external security threats, as well as a concerted effort to modernize armed forces initiatives. They provide numerous advantages, with the most important being the ability to locate and track enemies without putting one’s own forces at risk. It will be interesting to see how their role in military operations develops over the coming years.

In tomorrow’s third and final edition of our Q&A with SDI, Ruchi will examine how the global military IT, data and computing market will influence future military operations.

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