Drone warfare and the end of crewed reconnaissance?

In ‘a sober assessment’ on the war in Ukraine, the US Army cut its Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft programme, while singling out advancements in drone technology. ​​​​​​​Andrew Salerno-Garthwaite reports.

Sikorsky’s FARA Competitive Prototype, RAIDER X, is seen at the Sikorsky Development Flight Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The utilisation of small, cost-effective, uncrewed technologies in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war is having a significant impact on Western procurement programmes, with the US axing of its FARA programme a direct casualty.  

The US Army will end development of the Future Attack and Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) after the conclusion of prototyping activities at the end of FY24 to make available resources for additional investment in a range of other rotorcraft airframes.  

This comes as part of a sweeping adjustment to the US Army aviation portfolio, following “a sober assessment of the modern battlefield,” according to a release from the US Army on 8 February, 2024.

US Army investing in uncrewed capabilities

“Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before,” said Chief of Staff of the Army, General Randy George, as part of the announcement that US Army investments will be refocused on uncrewed aerial reconnaissance capabilities. 

Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before.

General Randy George, US Army Chief of Staff.

However, the US Army will also phase out operations systems that are “not capable or survivable on today’s battlefield’, including the Shadow and Raven uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS). 

The trade-off between programmes announced by the US Army have also resulted in the end of the production of the UH-60V version of the Blackhawk helicopter, in favour of a multi-year contract to procure the UH-60M version that adds 20 years to the service life of the airframe. A full rate production of the CH-47 Block II Chinook was also announced, ending uncertainty over its future.  

Soldiers demonstrating the use of Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles for scouting during military operations. Credit: Gorodenkoff via Shutterstock.

Replacing the Kiowa

The FARA programme, which aimed to replace the Kiowa helicopter, is the third such programme that the Army has so far cancelled, following the end of development of the Comanche and Arapaho prototypes before the beginning of their production runs. The Comanche development programme spanned two decades, between the 1970’s and 1980’s, and cost $8bn. The Arapaho was cancelled in 2008, with spiralling costs and delays cited for the cancellation.

An OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter taking off from Forward Operating Base MacKenzie in Iraq. Credit: Stocktrek Images, via Getty.

The FARA programme began in 2018 with a shortlist of five competitors producing prototypes as part of a $1.9bn programme. The US Army began with participating teams from Boeing, Sikorsky Aircraft, Bell Helicopter Textron, and Karem Aircraft along with AVX Aircraft-L3Harris.

In March 2020 this was narrowed down to prototypes, coming from Bell Helicopter Textron and Sikorsky Aircraft, and $735m was allocated as fixed funding between 2020 and 2023, with FARA aircraft production expected to begin in 2024.   

Drone production investment crucial

Learning lessons from the battlefields of Ukraine, US Army leaders assessed the capabilities the FARA offered, and indicated that it could be better achieved through a mix of “enduring, unmanned, and space-based assets,” suggesting that its critical reconnaissance missions passed onto drone operation teams and geospatial satellite systems.

Production of Poseidon reconnaissance drones for Ukrainian armed forces. Credit: Drop of Light via Shutterstock.

Wilson Jones, an aerospace and defence analyst for GlobalData, supports this observation, pointing out that drones can be less expensive to build, buy, and maintain, as they are generally smaller than manned aircraft. Jones adds that training of crew is less demanding for remote systems, and that by using this approach the risk associated with exposing a pilot to an active theatre, or accidents in training, is hugely reduced.

Long-term spending commitments and direct investments in infrastructure are essential now.

Tristan Sauer, aerospace and defence analyst for GlobalData.

Tristan Sauer, an aerospace and defence analyst for GlobalData, notes that modernising uncrewed reconnaissance drones to take up the mission of FARA, and at the same time committing resources to replace the Shadow and Falcon drones, will “require a massive upscaling of manufacturing capabilities” to be able to field unmanned systems in the required quantities.

"Long-term spending commitments and direct investments in infrastructure are essential now. This is because the emerging idea of a UAS-heavy force structure will only be successful if it can deploy multiple drones for every manned system that would have been fielded,” concludes Sauer.  

Increasing efficacy of drones in warfare

In the first year of the war in Ukraine, both Russia and Ukraine were adapting commercially available drones for battlefield use with the addition of explosive payloads and the mechanisms to employ them. Advances in the production and design process of drones have revolutionised the systems’ use as a weapon. 

Smaller UAS systems have increasingly been employed to effect targets that are not typically a part of the frontline, suggesting range improvements are occurring during ongoing UAS development, overcoming mechanical limitations in the design of the system, and in maintaining signal at distance and beyond line-of-sight.   

A serviceman of a company of uncrewed combat aerial systems of the 118th Separate Mechanised Brigade of the Ukrainian Ground Forces configures an First Person View drone. Credit: Photo by Dmytro Smolienko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images.

This evolving trend over the first two years since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has broadened the range of use-cases for armed drones, from tools of frontline combat to effectors for long-range interdiction, where long-range fire options and artillery would otherwise be the prevalent systems of choice.

For the longest-range drones, one-way attack systems such as the Iranian Shahed platform, the options exist to operate on targets that would otherwise require long-range precision strike munitions, and to do so for a fraction of the cost.

Production of low-cost night vision cameras and thermal vision have made operation of inexpensive drones possible at a large scale in conditions that were previously disruptive to successful targeting. The availability of purposely built and specific payload munitions has also added to the lethality of drones.  

AI could harness commercial satellites to improve battlefield communications. Credit: Vector illustration Who_I_am via Getty.

Australia could be one of the main beneficiaries of this dramatic increase in demand, where private companies and local governments alike are eager to expand the country’s nascent rare earths production. In 2021, Australia produced the fourth-most rare earths in the world. It’s total annual production of 19,958 tonnes remains significantly less than the mammoth 152,407 tonnes produced by China, but a dramatic improvement over the 1,995 tonnes produced domestically in 2011.

The dominance of China in the rare earths space has also encouraged other countries, notably the US, to look further afield for rare earth deposits to diversify their supply of the increasingly vital minerals. With the US eager to ringfence rare earth production within its allies as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, including potentially allowing the Department of Defense to invest in Australian rare earths, there could be an unexpected windfall for Australian rare earths producers.

Total annual production

$345m: Lynas Rare Earth's planned investment into Mount Weld.

Phillip Day. Credit: Scotgold Resources