America’s Drone Challenge

Tackling the challenge of unmanned drones is the key issue for the US in the Pacific, a retired general says.

Pilotless warplanes are proliferating across the Pacific. This poses a big problem for US defence planners, according to one retired US Air Force general.

In recent months, the United States, China and Taiwan have all revealed new or planned Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). The US Navy is considering replacing some or all of its future F-35 manned fighters with armed drones, potentially based on the experimental X-47B.  Taiwan has announced ambitious plans for at least two types of killer drones to supplement its aging manned fighter fleet. China, meanwhile, is working on a wide range of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV); the Japanese navy spotted a small, apparently ship-launched drone over a Chinese fleet this summer.

In light of these and other drone developments, the Pentagon must consider ‘the design and establishment of an effective air defence architecture that can rapidly deal with adversary RPA capabilities without fratricide of friendly aircraft and missiles, retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula told The Diplomat.

‘Keep in mind that for the past 20 years, we’ve dominated the airspace where we have fought – what’s been in the air is “ours,”’ Deptula said. ‘This condition won’t last forever. Imagine a contingency where there are hundreds of adversary UAVs operating. Who and how will we be able to detect friend from foe, and how will we effectively engage the ‘bad guys’ while allowing our UAVs and other aircraft to continue their missions?’

A system to help sort out ‘friendly’ and enemy drones could be based on existing Identification Friend or Foe radio beacons installed on manned warplanes. The future RPA identification system could also dovetail with a possible command-and-control architecture for integrating drones into civilian airspace crowded with freighters and passenger planes. ‘This issue goes hand in hand with the airspace control issue,’ Deptula said.

‘If these issues aren’t addressed and solved today, we will have some enormous challenges to face when confronted with this kind of a situation for the first time in battle,’ he added.