UAVs advance since Desert Storm

The new IT arsenal

As the United States builds up for war with Iraq, defense experts say that information technology is much different than it was during the Gulf War. This article is part of a series that examines changes in military IT during the past 12 years and culminates with in-depth coverage in the Feb. 24 issue of Federal Computer Week ["DOD deploys high-tech arsenal"].

In the dozen years since Operation Desert Storm, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have come into their own and could take center stage in any conflict that may take place in Iraq.

The Pioneer UAV saw limited action in the Gulf War and had enough problems to make it an expendable program. Today's UAVs — the Predator and the Global Hawk — offer commanders a viable option and a new technological perspective.

UAVs can extend the sight of battlefield commanders — both in a visual sense and using sensor data — without risking pilots' lives. Their primary use remains in reconnaissance and battle damage assessment, but armed UAVs have begun to find their way into the U.S. arsenal.

UAVs have already been battle tested in at least four theaters of operations, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The UAVs are not going to push sensor technology further to the front, but rather provide different commanders in the battle space the ability to see a situation from many different angles," said Robert Martinage, a senior defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank in Washington, D.C. "UAVs were used in the first Gulf War, but they were slow and had a comparatively short range. And commanders had to wait for their return to download data."

With advances in data transmission technology, UAVs can send pictures or sensor data in real time to rear echelon commanders and even soldiers in the field, giving them what Martinage called an "increased range of awareness."

Retired Army Capt. John Hillen, the leader of a reconnaissance unit in Desert Storm, said UAVs offer a distinct advantage, but also require the services to rethink the way they fight.

UAVs provide a "remote intelligence capability of the first order" by putting eyes on the target and feeding that information directly back to the commanders or even shooters, said Hillen, now senior vice president and director of American Management Systems Inc.'s defense and intelligence group.

He noted, however, that the use of UAVs requires the military services to be "forward-learning," calling for them to reorganize, shift their culture and mindset, and bring about a change in doctrine, training and education.

Navy Vice Adm. Richard Mayo, commander of the Naval Network Warfare Command in Norfolk, Va., said that the networking of UAVs, unmanned underwater vehicles and long-range sensors is going to provide the armed services with capabilities never before seen in the history of war.

"In the future, the increased use of unmanned or autonomous systems, miniaturized munitions, and ship- and submarine-launched long-range sensors, all networked together, will tie together naval, joint and national information grids to provide accurate, timely information and intelligence to decision-makers on the battlefront," Mayo said.

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