An unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), commonly known as an attack drone, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that carries Air Force ordnance. UCAV’s are affordable weapons systems that expand the tactical options available to the RAF in relation to aerial and ground combat situations. In the same manner, as a UAV, UCAVs have no onboard human pilots. The systems are either controlled by an operator from a remote-control terminal, or by electronic systems that have been developed with varying degrees of autonomous functionality. Where the systems differ, however, is within the technologies that the systems carry and utilise, linking into their functional applications.
Since the turn of the century, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have progressed from basic Intelligence and Situational tools to powerful and sophisticated technologies that are crucial in terms of military strategy and operation. Modern UCAVs are capable of finding, tracking, targeting, and engaging with specific targets, as seen during targeted drone strikes.
UCAV systems can provide all the capabilities afforded by a manned aircraft, but at a fraction of the price when considering the system’s life-cycle cost. Whilst the systems themselves are less expensive than a manned aircraft (as they don’t require the systems and tech needed for manned flight), further savings provided by UCAVs in relation to training and operational costs.
The greatest saving UCAVs achieve, however, is in their protection of human life. Military commanders use strategy in combat to inflict as much damage as possible to the enemy, whilst trying to risk as few personnel and resources as possible. UCAV’s remote control removes the risk to human-life completely, putting only the cost of the technology at risk during exercises.
By the very nature of the RAF, there are only limited examples of UCAV’s being used for military operations.
A recent example, however, was seen with the successful deployment of an RAF Reaper drone as a means of halting an Islamic State public killing, seen earlier this year in May. Remote RAF analysts were using a Reaper drone for an armed reconnaissance mission when they came across a large crowd forming in an Eastern Syrian town. The surveillance technology attached to the UCAV allowed mission control to confirm that this was part of a public execution, with the Reaper’s ordnance then allowing the Service to act.
A Hellfire missile was fired at two sentries who were posted away from the execution site. This scored a direct hit, neutralising the target, and causing the crowds and Daesh fighters to flee the scene.
Without an onboard weapons system, the reaction time to this event may have been too slow, as mission control relayed messages to scramble manned fighter planes and units to the execution site. The precise and powerful technology housed within the Reaper drone meant that the RAF could act almost instantaneously in relation to the threat, ensuring that a successful outcome was achieved.
Although UCAVs are cheaper than manned aircrafts, this cost is still relative. A single reaper drone costs the RAF around £10 million, with the actual price being much higher when considering the further operational and control systems required. Reaper drones are also a highly advanced type of UCAV, often being unnecessarily powerful for shorter flights and smaller operations.
As the Air Force increases its sphere of influence across the globe, the cost of purchasing multiple Reaper drones is becoming more impractical, inefficient, and unnecessary for operations. The RAF is, therefore, looking to expand its options in relation to smaller and lower-cost UCAV technologies. This is to ensure multiple systems can be utilised across its entire network.
To achieve this, the Air Force is looking to invest a large amount of time and resources into the companies that can provide unique and innovative solutions in relation to UCAV technologies and their development.
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