2014 October 09 Thursday
Lame US Air War Over Syria Due To UAV Shortage

Wondering why the vaunted air power of the USAF can't prevent all the Kurdish fighters in Kobani from getting slaughtered? One reason: Afghanistan is getting more drones than Iraq or Syria. The US Air Force heavily uses Predators, Reapers, and the like to identify friend or foe. It can't identify enough foes to blow them up in sufficient number.

The article alludes to something I've read in greater detail elsewhere: UAVs spend a lot of time going to or from a target area and during these journeys the USAF insists on one pilot per drone. A pilot could easily monitor a group of drones all executing a flight plan on autopilot. But no.

The article describes staffing levels per drone that include 30 people to maintain and operate each drone plus another 80 people to analyze each drone's video and other sensor feeds. That's incredibly inefficient.

But it gets worse from a cost perspective. Since the USAF insists on putting most of its money into aircraft designed to wage war with a near peer it is flying very expensive aircraft to blow up cheap ISIS equipment.

Even when it comes to building UAVs the USAF spends more on really expensive stealth UAVs (fewer but more expensive) because it wants to be ready to fight a near peer (that would be China btw). Hence the current situation. The US military really needs larger quantities of cheaper aircraft and cheaper UAVs to over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria simultaneously. But it insisted on F-22 an F-35 fighters (with massive cost overruns and many years of delay) and the more expensive UAVs. Also joint multi-service fighters actually cost more according to the Rand Corp.

Think about how cheaply the USAF could bomb ISIS if it had a different attitude. It could use large numbers of cheap UAVs and then convert some commercial jets into cheap bombers to drop cheap JDAM bombs.

Update: ISIS is expanding its position inside of Ramadi Iraq and threatens to overrun the Anbar province. So US support for the Iraqi Shia government is not yet enough to prevent further retreats. This is amazing. The Sunni Jihadists are far more motivated to fight than the Shia militias and Shia Iraqi Army. US air power isn't stopping ISIS from expanding.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2014 October 09 09:25 PM 

Mike Street Station said at October 10, 2014 7:29 AM:

The Air Force often seems to be run like a flying club more than a serious military. Drone pilots get flight pay. That should tell you all you need to know about why the Air Force resists drones and would rather spend billions in jet fighters that we don't need.

Thorfinnsson said at October 10, 2014 7:58 AM:

The "near peer" argument is nonsense in the drone context. The MQ-9 Reaper drone, despite costing 32 million dollars, can only pull 3 G, has a top speed of just 300 miles per hour, and to my knowledge doesn't have terrain following radar. It is unlikely to defeat even an obsolete surface to air missile like an SA-2 Guideline, let alone modern SAMs or heaven forbid an actual interception by fighter aircraft. And if you add to that the latency and poor situational awareness of the remote operator, it's very clear it can only survive in what the Air Force labels a "permissive" environment. This may be one reason few are being allocated to attack ISIS--if the Syrians decide the drones are unwelcome they will shoot them down with ease. And besides, the MQ-9 Reaper only has a 3,800 pound payload. Why exactly a low-performance turboprop aircraft costs $32 million, more than a late model F-16, is a mystery to me.

There are two good cheap options for bombing campaigns in "permissive" environments. One is a "bomb truck" approach, the other is a light aircraft approach.

The "bomb truck" approach involves an aircraft like a B-52 (modern airliners could easily be adapted for this as well) to drop small GPS guided bombs (the JDAM package costs around $12,000) en masse. During the Afghan War, heavy bombers (B-52 and B-1B) flew just 12% of the sorties but dropped 70% of the ordinance. This approach could be made cheaper by developing a simple bomber conversion kit for cargo and tanker aircraft without equipping them with sophisticated countermeasures, radar, bomb sights, astrocompass navigation equipment, etc.

The light aircraft approach is pretty simple. You take a small, cheap turboprop aircraft (or jet trainer) and equip it with bomb racks and a gun. Cessnas, Beechcraft, and old WW2 aircraft were used for this purpose in Viet Nam. The Brazilian Super Tucano was designed for this role and was even purchased for the Afghan War. These aircraft can't deliver heavy payloads, but they can fly low and slow and remain on station near ground troops for awhile. The A-10, while actually intended for high tempo operations against a near peer, also works fantastically in this role and has a very low cost per flying hour. The A-10 can also carry a sizeable payload, a main gun that will shred anything on the battlefield, and is capable of dive bombing in the event you don't want to spend money on precision guided bombs.

Something in between the two categories is the gun ship, which is currently in Air Force inventory and was used successfully in Viet Nam. There is also a kit to convert C-130 transport aircraft into gunships at a depot in about a day.

So why aren't these approaches being pursued? Ignorance, careerism, bureaucratic empire building, and corruption.

Jim said at October 10, 2014 10:26 AM:

If only we kill enough people all our problems will be solved.

John Cunningham said at October 10, 2014 10:39 AM:

@Jim, if we kill enough of the right people, our problems WILL be solved. remember, peace is the highest good, and there is nothing more
peaceful than a 30-ft high pile of dead Mooselimbs. also, note that rubble makes no trouble. worried about possible civilian injuries? as
the noted philosopher Gen. Phil Sheridan put it, "Nits make lice."

TMLutas said at October 10, 2014 11:00 AM:

The problem is actually deeper than a lack of drones. Doctrinally, there are two different air war missions interdiction (which is laid out in the publicly available JP 3-03 document) and close air support (which is laid out in the sort of publicly available JP 3-09.3 document). To run the latter, you need a JTAC asset or reasonable facsimile (read the doc). They have that in Iraq. They don't have that in Syria. Until the Syrian kurds make kissy face with their Iraqi cousins and set up communications quick and reliable enough to get timely CAS strike information to the JTAC guys sitting in Erbil or until we change the RoE to allow the Syrian Kurds to give amateur hour JTAC information direct to US pilots and we all accept the increased probability of fratricide, the US will only be running interdiction missions in Syria.

The lack of UAVs exacerbates the problem of finding interdiction missions but I would say not running any CAS missions in Syria is the bigger story.

Jim said at October 10, 2014 1:22 PM:

If only we had had the sense to stay out of the madness of the Middle East.

Wolf-Dog said at October 10, 2014 2:35 PM:

The cause of all these useless wars is oil.

Only half the $1 trillion wasted in the military campaigns since 2001, would have been enough to develop alternative fuels. Already the Sasol company of South Africa converts coal to oil at $45 per barrel, while the Chinese version costs $60 per barrel. The US has enough coal for at least century to become 100 % energy independent.


Stephen said at October 10, 2014 3:52 PM:

It doesn't really matter what hardware we do or don't have. Its all useless if the basic strategy is designed to fit a political narrative that is patently false.

Reggin said at October 10, 2014 10:26 PM:

"If only we kill enough people all our problems will be solved."

Wish those "people" would be black.

Randall Parker said at October 10, 2014 10:52 PM:


While I did not make this explicit in the post my point is that since we are going to keep intervening in the Middle East lets at least use highly cost effective equipment and develop tech that is even more cost effective.


Yes, surprisingly expensive:

The unit cost of the Army's MQ-1C Gray Eagle is $5.40 million in FY 2014, while the MQ-9 Reaper costs $14.42 million. These prices are for air vehicles only and does not include the cost of ground stations and other associated equipment.

I'm struck by how much more could be accomplished with some cheap used passenger jets converted to JDAM carriers and US special forces embedded with Syrian Kurds and Iraqi Kurds. The special forces could call in cheap JDAMs any time serious resistance was encountered.

At the same time, I wonder what could be accomplished with UAVs if they were built in large quantities using cheap parts.


Yes. we would be better off focusing on how to break our addiction to imported oil.

Daniel H said at October 11, 2014 12:24 AM:

It never occurred to our military leaders to imbed GPS tracking devices inside the material we gave to the Iraqi military. Would have made it much easer to track down this equipment and destroy it.

Sam said at October 11, 2014 3:22 AM:

Jumbo Jet Bombers


Transport-Bombers: A Conceptual Shift in Precision Guided Munitions Delivery THESIS BY BRYAN J. BENSON


Lots of articles on saving the military money.


Dan said at October 11, 2014 6:05 AM:

"It never occurred to our military leaders to imbed GPS tracking devices inside the material we gave to the Iraqi military. Would have made it much easer to track down this equipment and destroy it."

Not too late. We can arm the Kurds with GPS based stuff and when (not if) the shizz falls in the wrong hands, it is drone video game time.

Wolf-Dog said at October 11, 2014 7:05 AM:

As we speak, the worst nightmare is already happening because the rising Caliphate is in the process of acquiring the kind of territory that also includes very lucrative taxable oil reserves and a large taxable population to fund the global Jihad into the West. This is in contrast with Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda had only limited income from an incredibly poor region, despite the significant opium and heroin trade in that part of the world. It is this new source of funds that Jihad needs to build a new industry of weapons of mass destruction, which would include not only nukes, but also a futuristic germ and chemical warfare industry. In a few decades, if not earlier, they will be able to start poisoning the water and food in Europe and North America, leading to economic chaos that would kill millions of people due to starvation. Since the Jihadis view all non-Muslims as enemy combatants, this means total war, and it is inevitable unless the Jihadi ideology is discredited at its foundation. Even "discrediting" the Jihadis, might be too optimistic because during the 20th century it took total war to discredit the Nazis. In this case, not preparing for total war, might be suicidal for the Western civilization (and its people.) After all, it was the preparation for total war against the Soviet Union that prevented World War III.

Thorfinnsson said at October 11, 2014 7:38 AM:

Wolf-Dog: I don't think we can reduce the causes to only our country's need for oil. The desire to control other countries' access to oil (especially China) is relevant, and then there is the Zionist sympathies of neoconservatives. That said, I wholly endorse synthetic fuels, which in addition to being cheaper than the market price of oil at present are also lower polluting (except for carbon) and add a lot of value to coal (Powder River Basin coal is only $8 a ton, and one ton produces 3-4 barrels of oil). Carbon is a concern, but perhaps could be mitigated by pursuing no-till agriculture on a massive scale and producing terra preta from agricultural waste instead of inefficient biofuels.

I don't agree with your later comments about total war. Arab Moslems are inbred, tribalistic, and generally inferior to the indigenous populations of highly industrialized countries. They have no access to advanced industry or technology, nor the capability to independently create it. The main thing is just to shut down immigration.

Sam: I am a long-time reader of Carlton S. Meyer, both on G2Mil and his previous work with Sanders Research Associates.

Randall Parker: Winslow Wheeler (a long-time defense critic) has estimated far higher costs: http://www.phibetaiota.net/2012/03/winslow-wheeler-drones-dead-on-arrival/

It's true there is no reason drones couldn't be made cheaper, but why? The sensory awareness of a remote operator is very poor, the ability of drones to identify targets as well as react is far worse than manned aircraft, and drone comm links can be jammed or even spoofed. It's a technological fetish, and drones are nothing new either. The first drone was tested in 1871, and we have been using drones in large numbers since the 1940s.

What makes sense instead:

-Incorporating drone technology into manned aircraft. This allows remote operators to access the same sensors a pilot can, and in cases of pilot incapacitation remote operators or autopilot computers can take over. This also allows for unmanned "suicide" missions. Danger here is that the Pentagon will abuse the technology to micromanage pilots and allow enemies to gain valuable intelligence by monitoring our communications.

-Drones too small for manned pilots. Obviously micro-UAVs are very useful.

-Drones for long-persistence missions where it is not practical to provide support facilities to support human crews for a long time (3+ days).

-Drones for threat environments with a very high likelihood of killing the pilot and where the drone can still be expected to succeed at a reasonable fraction of a manned mission (see manned aircraft with drone tech above).

-Drones for simple and easy missions (mainly to save on personnel costs).

Wolf-Dog said at October 11, 2014 8:04 AM:

Thorfinnsson: Your comments that reduce the problem of Jihadi ideology to the biological identity of the Arabs, is rather too simplistic, especially the trivialization by using the word "inferior". Jihadism is not a race but an ideology. Pakistan is not a Semitic country, they are the same race as the Indians, and just like India, they already have the industrial infrastructure that is capable of building hundreds of nukes, but it is only a matter of time until the fundamentalists gain power in Pakistan. Similarly, Iran is not a Semitic country, and I have met many Persian scientists who are second to none. So the issue is the ideology, not race. As we speak, thousands of disgruntled white Europeans are converting to Islam also. thus my point is the same: If and when the Jihadis take over the Iraqi and Saudi oil fields, then they will be able to get a lot more weapons of mass destruction because the capitalists would sell the rope that will be used to hang them: most foreign scientists and engineers can be bought for the right price.

Wolf-Dog said at October 11, 2014 8:12 AM:

And I forgot to add that at the core of the ISIS elite war machine, are foreign Jihadis from Chechnya and other Asian countries, who are clearly not Arabs.

JB said at October 11, 2014 9:55 AM:

The cause of all these useless wars is Israel. There, fixed it for you.

The Republican party keeps its constituents minds off of the fact that they are the victims of ongoing genocide by giving them a war to cheer for. (They need the permission of the Jewish lobby for this which is why all these wars are in the Middle East.) And the idiots always fall for it. They want to be fooled so they don't have to confront power and possibly have their toys taken away. One silver lining in the American Holocaust is that the third-worlders in the new ruling coalition don't have much interest in these adventures, they want whitey's money in their pocket. You're seeing the beginning of it in Bammy's reluctance to use the military. Thank god Mad John McCain isn't President.

Wolf-Dog said at October 11, 2014 10:22 AM:

JB, I was under the impression that even Osama Bin Laden made it clear in no uncertain terms that his main goal is to gain control of the Saudi oil reserves for his Jihad, and that Israel was only a secondary target. Similarly, even Iran says that Israel is only the "Little Satan" and that the America is the "Big Satan". Long before the creation of Israel, the British, French, and American oil companies had an interest in the Middle East. The destruction of Israel will not satisfy the Jihadis in the long run.

And your choice of words like "Jewish lobby giving permission to the US government", etc, is duly noted as a generalization.

Big Bill said at October 14, 2014 11:41 PM:

Think about how cheaply the USAF could bomb ISIS if it had a different attitude. It could use large numbers of cheap UAVs and then convert some commercial jets into cheap bombers to drop cheap JDAM bombs.

And how many millions of tons of shells pulverized the Western Front, yet the Germans just dug themselves out and thoroughly shot up the Allies? I wish raining hell from the sky worked. I figure it is just going to bankrupt us.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Web parapundit.com
Go Read More Posts On ParaPundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright