Recent conflicts pushing global militaries to invest in UAVs

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If global interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) started to rise after their armed deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the massive – and effective – use of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria, Libya and especially Ukraine are pushing world’s powers to invest even more in new technologies and aircraft.

Aviation experts at the Teal Group, in their latest world military UAV market profile and forecast, say the world is only at the very beginning of what drones are about to become in armed forces around the world: “These first demonstrations of the armed UAV in combat are reminiscent of the first use incidents of air-to-air combat in 1914 with pilots duelling with guns, bricks, and other improvised weapons. They provide only a hint of their future potential.” Indeed, the different drones currently engaged in military actions are often armed reconnaissance or tactical UAVs, such as the Bayraktar TB2 or the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.

War operations in Syria and especially in Ukraine have also been showing how commercial mini-UAVs such as small quadcopters can be militarized, whether it is for tactical reconnaissance, or, with modifications, bombardments of small intensity. Ukrainian military men have left a mark by sharing videos of 3D-printed mechanisms able to launch grenades out of commercial quadcopters.

Even if all lessons cannot be learnt from Ukraine yet, this year’s annual Teal Group annual report clearly highlight how drones are going to be part of all aspects of war, with segments going from micro-UAVs, able to fit in the palm of the hand and used by infantry platoons, to high-end Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV), supposedly able to conduct all the missions of a modern fighter jet. If all the powers around the world are heavily investing in UAV technology, it is flagrant that the USA are maintaining a clear advance. Indeed, not only the Pentagon already has nearly as many drones as the rest of the world combined (37% military drones to be produced in 2023 will be American), but the USA is increasing efforts to close the gap by 2031 (50.9% of the drones produced that year are planned to be Made in USA).

When looking up in value instead of number of units, the hegemony of American drones seems even clearer, as Washington is going to invest 53.2% of the world’s budget dedicated for military UAVs. The report does not ignore the fact that US-made military systems are usually more expensive and sophisticated than foreign solutions, a trend that could explain that difference. Furthermore, if Europeans countries are quite transparent, it is not the case for other nations. Russia, China – and even Japan – are very restrictive regarding public disclosure of their UAVs programmes and the related investment.

On the other side of the Pacific, the USA is quite transparent, but prone to go “black” on programmes of strategic significance. That’s where the Teal Group experience comes in, allowing us to share their educated guess regarding black programmes’ likely budgets. And it matters, as US Black UAV programmes account for 35% of the world expected R&D investments in 2023….

The future of UAVs is yet to be determined. But the war in Ukraine and other previous conflicts have also exposed the limits of such systems. If armed reconnaissance and observation drones have been very efficient in US wars over the last two decades, it is also because they have been deployed in mostly permissive airspaces. But the situation in Ukraine is picturing another story, with massive losses of all UAV segments, big and small. This story will impact the design of the next generation of both UAVs and counter-UAVs systems. It is also stimulating interest and research around UCAVs, which are developed to be able to operate strike missions in heavily-contested areas.

If China’s and Japan’s projects aren’t disclosed in the report, Teal Group made a list of the different projects that have been launched – and for some, that are already over – with the Taranis in the UK, the Barracuda in Germany, the Neuron in France (soon to be resurrected?), the S-70 Okhotnik in Russia and finally the American X-45, X-47 and RQ-170 Sentinel, just to mention a few. Planned to reach at least high-subsonic speeds while being sleek and stealthy, UCAVs seems to be hard to develop, as none is already being in operational service and as the world’s production output of UCAVs is expected to exceed the hundred per year only in 2030. They also come with a price tag that is sometimes even higher than mid-range manned-aircraft fighters.

Teal Group experts sum up this issue like this: “Is it cheaper to deploy a $50-75 million UCAV with an expected survivability of 15 missions and high maintenance costs, or to deploy 50 to 75 $1-million Tomahawk cruise missiles with relatively low maintenance costs?” The report therefore submits its beliefs to the reader’s opinion, as for them the USAF would be developing in priority “a stealthy strike UCAV to replace the F-117 strike fighter”. Using UCAVs for theatre openings seems, indeed, the best use that can be done of them at the moment. The fact is that striking ground target, even autonomously, is already possible, while UCAVs have yet to prove that they can be used as fighters. There is the fear that unmanned vehicles would be sitting ducks for enemy fighters, with little solutions already developed to replace the agility of a human pilot.

The report, while stressing the amounts invested in UCAV developments, also explores the uses of two particular platform types: the continuation of uses of armed MALE UAVs and Tactical UAVs, and the spreading of mini-UAVs and especially quadcopters. Even more useful when armed, these commercial market-sourced drones are proven as particularly helpful for infantry and armoured vehicles fights, “some infantry officers suggest they will become as ubiquitous as binoculars”, the experts write. But how industry, and some of the roughly 60 key companies covered in the report, will manage and adapt to these new use cases is yet to be determined.

As mentioned by Steve Zaloga, one of the authors, next year’s edition of the report will have the opportunity to fully assess the real impact of the Ukrainian conflict on global budget adjustments and orientations in terms of UAV procurement, and how that will shape the market.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.