Combat drone aircraft ‘wave of the future’

Recent news about the development of an advanced unmanned military fighter jet reminds me of my visit six years ago this month to Creech Air Force Base in Southern Nevada.

Located at Indian Springs, about 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas off Highway 95, Creech is where USAF pilot-officers, sitting at computer consoles in climate-controlled trailers, push buttons and manipulate short, vertical rods nicknamed “joysticks” that guide, by satellite link, overseas-based, missile-armed Predator and Reaper drones to enemy targets nearly 8,000 miles from the U.S. mainland.

My visit to Creech was my initiation to military drones, and USAF Col. James “Scotch” Hecker, commander of the 432nd Air Combat Wing, briefed me on the remarkable, ongoing development of unmanned military aircraft which many aviation experts believe will be the wave of the future for air-to-ground and even air-to-air warfare.

As well as conducting air strikes against enemy forces and installations, the drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), also perform other functions such as aerial reconnaissance, photography, intelligence gathering, search and rescue coordination, close-air support for ground troops and assessing civilian disaster damages, Hecker told me as I observed operations in one of the Creech trailers.

Several Reaper and Predator drones also are located at Creech. They are used solely for training purposes, and I was able to photograph them in their respective hangars. The battlefield drones, however, are based at more than a dozen U.S. and overseas air bases, from where they take off, perform their bombing missions against enemy targets, and then return to their respective bases under the directions via satellite of the pilots at Creech many thousands of miles away.

When I returned to Fallon and wrote a column about my experiences at Creech, I said that the ongoing developments of drone warfare there and elsewhere are providing “the most stunning revolution in combat since the invention of gunpowder more that 700 years ago. Machines, instead of humans, may soon be fighting the wars of the future.”

At the end of World War II, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who was taught to fly by the Wright brothers and commanded U.S. air forces that helped bring us victory against Germany and Japan, made this prediction:

“We have just won a war with a lot of heroes flying around in planes. The next war may be fought with airplanes with no men in them at all. Take everything you learned about aviation in war, throw it out the window, and let’s go to work on tomorrow’s aviation. It will be different from anything you have ever seen.”

And just 18 months ago, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, referring to the Lockheed-Martin F-35 “Lightning” strike fighter jet now in use by the Navy, Marines and Air Force, made a similar prediction: “The F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the United States Navy will ever buy or fly.” (The Navy, like the USAF, Army and Marine Corps, is experimenting with combat drones as well. Drones also have flown off the decks of USN carriers.)

The recent news about the development of an advanced unmanned fighter jet I mentioned in this column’s first paragraph relates to Boeing’s unveiling last month of the aircraft in Australia that reportedly “will be able to provide fighter jet-like performance to fly independently or in support of manned military aircraft,” according to the Financial Times, Great Britain’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. “Unmanned aircraft can be kept up in the sky longer and travel further distances than manned aircraft. There is less risk to human life and much lower staffing levels are required. Defense forces around the world are increasingly turning to unmanned aircraft,” added the newspaper.

This new drone called the “Loyal Wingman” and initially developed for the Royal Australian Air Force is about 40-feet in length and is expected to be sold to other nations, possibly the U.S.

Canada also is developing drone combat aircraft. Canada’s top military officer, Gen. Jonathan Vance, said there is “growing evidence” that the next generation of combat aircraft will be unmanned for reasons of technology and low cost. “They are a bargain,” according to quotes made by Vance that were published in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

Man once fought with crude hand tools. Then came gunpowder and, centuries later, military aviation. Today, man’s newest tool to inflict death and destruction upon his enemy is the unmanned drone.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


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