Military drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have revolutionized America’s military strategy in recent decades. From reconnassinace platforms that can loiter over combat zones for hours to armed drones that can deliver precision strikes against high value targets, there’s no questioning the value these platforms provide America’s war fighting apparatus. But despite how often we hear about these drones in the news, most people are still surprised to learn that many of these drone platforms are just as big as any manned fighter you might come across.
When you see shots of these drones in the air, there’s rarely anything nearby to provide scale, and as a result, many tend to think that even platforms like the $123 million a piece RQ-4 Global Hawk bears a resemblance to the hobby drones you might find on the shelf of your local big box store. The truth is, you’d be better off comparing these beasts to school busses than a quadcopter.
These advanced platforms are so big for a reason. While they don’t need space to accommodate a human passenger, they’re otherwise built in a similar fashion to traditional aircraft, and UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) need large wingspans to provide enough lift to carry heavy payloads into combat.
America’s military drones serve in a wide variety of roles that are interchangeable with manned aircraft. Boeing’s forthcoming MQ-25 Stingray, for instance, will serve as a carrier-based aircraft refueler. The massive weight of all that extra fuel, like other UAV’s built to carry ordinance, demand a sizable airframe.
Of course, not all of America’s military drones are aircraft. DARPA’s ACTUV Sea Hunter is a 132-foot long, 135 ton unmanned surface vessel (USV) that can operate with a crew on board or entirely autonomously. The Navy hopes to use these platforms to hunt for enemy submarines in contested waters. Unlike manned aircraft or vessels, the Sea Hunter can operate for days on end, criss-crossing a designated patch of ocean and looking for any potential threats.
In the air, on land, and at sea, unmanned platforms are becoming increasingly prevalent, but aviators, ground troops, and sailors need not fret. The U.S. military has made it clear that they see drones as a force multiplier, but not as a replacement for troops in the field. At the end of the day, it’s always a human being that decides what these unmanned platforms will do. The future may be full of drones — but they’ll be in support of manned platforms, not a replacement for them.
At least not for a long time to come.