HomeThe Rise of Disposable Drones

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As air-launched munitions get smarter, the Air Force is creating a new class of weapon—a combination of drones and missiles. But can they be advanced enough to work, yet cheap enough that it’s okay to lose a few in battle?

It has advanced radar, forward-looking infrared cameras, and laser rangefinders—all used to help the 13-man crew direct a barrage of lethal fire to the ground from 12,000 feet. But for all of this advanced technology, the vision of the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command gunships can be thwarted by the threatening adversary known as a cloudy sky.

The Air Force has a solution: Launch a small unmanned aircraft from the gunship to drop below the cloud cover and serve as the eyes of the AC-130’s crew. Special Operations officials last year spoke publicly about using a drone called the Coyote—the wings of the Coyote unfold as the drone launches from a six-inch-wide tube. A higher-endurance version is in development.

Weapons are getting smarter and drones are getting smaller, and pretty soon it will be hard to tell the difference. “The main weakness of sUAS [small unmanned aircraft systems] is range,” says U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Alexus Grynkewich, deputy director for operations at the National Joint Operations and Intelligence Center and coauthor of a recently released Pentagon study called “Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan.” “You need some delivery method to get them close.”

Grynkewich sees the engineering challenge as a series of trade-offs. A heavier engine increases a drone’s range, but the airplane that launches it isn’t able to carry as many. The amount of sophistication on the sensor adds expense to the drone, which may be lost in battle. And the wingspan is limited by the hardware on the airplane. Despite these complexities, the Air Force sees smart but disposable aircraft as an important solution: Airpower is a game of threat and response. One side makes a powerful radar array, the other creates stealth warplanes that can fly undetected. By the time the new airplane is ready to meet the old threat, a new one has emerged. It’s a lot easier, cheaper, and faster, however, to redesign a drone than an entire airplane. “The idea is to have a tech refresh fielded in months instead of years,” says Reid Melville, strategy lead for unmanned systems at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “That way, when we get surprised, we will have the infrastructure in place to make a rapid change.”

Except when it comes to singing The Righteous Brothers songs in bars, this new generation of drones promises to be the perfect wingman. They make no mistakes and have no emotion. And if the situation demands it, they are willing sacrifices. There is one big difference, however: Like soldiers, drones will always deserve gratitude. Unlike soldiers, however, they’ll never deserve a funeral.