back to article Airborne killer robot destroys Libyan anti-aircraft missile

In news which will send a cold chill down the necks of fast-jet pilots and air forces around the world, it has been announced that an unmanned "Predator" drone has destroyed a heavy Libyan surface-to-air missile in Tripoli on Sunday. A Tornado GR4 en route to operations over Libya, pictured from a refuelling tanker aircraft. …


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  1. Frank Long

    One country this article neglects

    Saudi Arabia.

    Not nuclear armed (although with all that money, no doubt they'd be able to get one), but with a very sophisticated airforce, an autocratic system atop a vastly unequal society and a penchant for violence.

    The fact that it floats on oil keeps it safe, but should that supply be disrupted by domestic insurgency, then all bets are off.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down


      But how would the Saudi Airforce fly without British, American and Australian BAe and McDonald Douglas aircrews servicing their 'planes? The Saudi Air Force did nothing in either of the Gulf Wars and are not an effective fighting force without daily intervention by Western contractors.

  2. George Kapotto

    Too bad...

    ...this can't become an election topic in Canada. Our latest PM, a.k.a. the lying sack of dung, is busy telling us that we need to buy 65 shiny new F-35s to replace our aging F-18s to the tune of $75M per airplane. Oh and the annual maintenance is a pittance, really!

    Of course, when the manufacturers are saying that we won't get them for a dollar under $115M - that is just quibbling over the sticker price.

    Sounds to me like we are getting goosed for a product that will be obsolete before the new cockpit smell subsides.

  3. lglethal Silver badge

    One point...

    It doesnt state in the NATO missive whether the SA-8 was still manned or not. Whilst your right that the skies above the SAM were "contested" by its very presence, if it was unmanned (much like those tanks that were destroyed by a ground attack Typhoon last week for publicity purposes) then it really is misleading to state that the Predator is now capable of operating in a "contested" airspace.

    I would contend pretty strongly that it was unmanned, as there was plenty of time for the SA-8 to identify the Predator (not being stealth), realise it was a target and then launch its missiles at the Predator whilst it waited for the kids to move away. The fact that the Predator controllers felt safe enough to do this strongly implies that they never expected (rightly so) for a missile to be fired at it....

    So really this is only a publicity stunt from the Predator controllers, much like the RAF's one last week, to encourage commentators like yourself to write articles like this. Thats not to say i disagree with the main thrust of the article, but i consider it disingenous to consider the Predator to be a "contested" airspace vehicle based on a single attack on a probably unmanned SAM...

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


      Anyway, if the Americans would have used an anti-radiation missile to kill an operating Osa, not the Stearman, sorry... Predator with a Hellfire.

    2. Daniel 1

      Of course it wasn't manned

      The SA8's radar has a 45 kilometer acquisition range and the 9M33 is a solid fuel, supersonic missile, with a 15km range. A predator would have looked like a stationary barn door, to that vehicle, if anyone was paying attention to it.

      A boy once flew into the middle of Red Square in a Cessna, but that does not mean that the West could have mounted a mass invasion of the Soviet Union using Cessnas. It just shows that you can have all the radar and missiles in the world, but if your operators are asleep at the controls you have nothing.

      1. Ian Michael Gumby


        Just because it didn't fire on NATO aircraft, including the predator, doesn't mean it wasn't manned.

        Look, if you were Qaddafi, you wouldn't waste the missile and risk further provoking the Allied forces.

        Dictators aren't stupid.

        1. joshimitsu

          So rather than waste the missile

          let it get destroyed?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward


          If I was a megalomaniac terror-sit sponsoring tin-pot dictator who was being bombed back too the stone age by his old-time foes while facing civil war, would I use one of my few remaining SAMs to try to score another propaganda coup, cause dissent in overseas media and discourage further air attacks?

          You bet.

        3. Knochen Brittle

          Gumby Maxim of the Week

          #23 ~ "Dictators aren't stupid"

          Whereas some resident drones on this board obviously are, exceedingly so.

          Giddy-up, Gumby, that White Man's Burden won't haul itself up the Hindukush ";0))

      2. Anonymous Coward

        what are you suggesting?

        That the U.S. Air Force ditch the Lockheed's and Northrup-Grumman's and buy refurbished -172's?

        Do you realize how boring that would make the battle scenes?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up


      I think that calling Libyan airspace contested is pushing the description somewhat. How many SAMs and Air-to-air sortees have been launched against NATO forces? None that we know of. Hardly contested airspace then, really.

    4. Anonymous Coward

      Am I the only one....

      ...that noted the article title says that a Predator shot down a missile, as opposed to doing a relatively hum-drum task of destroying a stationary ground target (albeit a TELAR vehicle)?

      Such sensationalism.

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        Obviously misleading

        "the article title says that a Predator shot down a missile"

        Must have been a very slow missile as it must have soared so leisurely and slowly towards the Predator while the football game was going on that the drone had time to wait for the game's final whistle before proceeding to shoot the hapless missile down...

        From memory, in real life it takes 10 seconds or so for an SA-8 missile to fly from launch to target.

  4. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Interesting thing about drones

    ... they tend to level the combat-scape.

    In "the good old days" air superiority required the deployment of many aircraft: none of which cost less than a small countries GDP to buy, operate and eventually crash. Even without the problems of getting someone to train up your pilots, without asking awkward questions like "well why would you want to fly a combat mission over Paris?"

    In the age of videogame warfare, where all the nasty, shooty stuff is done by disposable flying robots that come free when you have enough clubcard points, the balance changes. Now every despot, along with the good guys (if there are any good guys, any more) can have a try at building their very own flying robot. Better yet, it's not the end of the world if you crash a few during testing and training. Hell! if a country like Israel (which doesn't have a drop of oil to its name) can develop some world class drones - albeit with some surreptitious outside help, then it shouldn't be too tricky for any other country that can muster a few engineering graduates to have a bash, too.

    In fact, one could easiily see a niche market for small and cheap flying robots. Maybe just a couple of feet big. Just large enough to propel an armour-piercing nosecone through the bullet resistant glass of an industrialist or politician's vehicle, if that person was dumb or unlucky enough to have offended said despot, despot's family or deity. With such a small drone, moving it into the country of your choice shouldn't be too difficult and I'm sure the control systems could be made to look like perfectly ordinary spying equipment - the sort that goes through diplomatic channels every day.

    Maybe, once we get to the point where any decision maker of any significance can be "reached" at will, they'll all start to see the light and start making sensible decisions for the greater good. (OK, you can dream). At that point these flying robots may, accidentally, become a force for democracy and liberation rather than a way of raining down detached and anonymous death on a location that your unreliable intelligence though might just be a likely target.

    1. Is it me?

      Which is why......

      Our brave boys in blue are interested in them as well, cheaper than a helicopter, but sadly no air to ground armaments for the speeding Essex wide boy.

    2. Elmer Phud


      "In fact, one could easiily see a niche market for small and cheap flying robots. Maybe just a couple of feet big. "

      The revolution starts here (and it's Vulture shaped)!

    3. Anonymous Coward


      Italy paid $63 million for two MQ-9 drones and associated paraphenalia. That's a lot of Clubcard points.

      Yes, Iran had a go a developing its own flying robot - the end result wasn't very convincing, frankly.

      "A country like Israel"? There aren't many countries that have a defence industry quite so well developed as Israel's. Being surrounded by unfriendly neighbours can do wonders for technological progress.

  5. nichomach
    Thumb Down

    I see.

    So when RAF jets kill tanks which happen to be stationary, the tanks are assumed to be unmanned and non-functional, thus proving that jets are rubbish, yet when a Predator attacks an unmanned non-active missile that makes it the best thing since sliced bread. Double standard, much? Also, calling the skies over Libya "contested" is highly disingenuous; somewhat akin to calling Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in '35 an even match.

    1. Is it me?

      How 'bout

      Remote control tanks, unmanned etc. or indeed snipers.

  6. TeeCee Gold badge

    Contested Airspace?

    The very meat 'n potatoes of drone territory I'd have thought. After all, when yer drone comes off worst in an argument with a SAM battery, you get to build a new drone. Ho hum.

    When yer fully meatsack equipped aircraft comes a cropper, you're out one very expensive aircraft and one very expensive and highly trained pilot (with a replacement time measured in years) to boot.

    As far as I can see, the only time that 'contested = sky-jockeys-only' sum applies is when the contesting is being done by other fast-jet pilots, for whom turboprop drones are probably the nearest equivalent to barrels of fish targetting-wise.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      what if you take this line of reasoning a bit farther (?further?)

      And ask what BA, United, Aeroflot, Qantas , Delta, etc. are going to do for pilots when there aren't any pilots left in the nations' air forces.

  7. Paul_Murphy


    Are we sure that the 'civilians' playing football weren't the crew?

    Since no facts say they weren't it's another viewpoint to consider.

    wikipedia ( says that the system is designed for attacking jets and helicopters - maybe a predator is a little too small for it to be bothered with?

    In any case I wonder how long it will be before our new aircraft carriers are converted to carry drones rather than jets, and for them to be controlled locally rather than from thousands of miles away.

    Makes you think.


    1. Luther Blissett


      Evidently from the presence of the footballers in the narrative, target acquisition was visual. So the footballers could have been real, but the SA-8 not, i.e. a cardboard cut-out.

      For a moment I thought the story would be about a drone destroying a SAM in flight. Silly me.

      1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

        Re: OTOH

        "For a moment I thought the story would be about a drone destroying a SAM in flight. Silly me."

        Same here.... To acquire and shoot down a missile in flight is not easy!

        And Osa missiles are command guided - that means the launcher constantly tracks both the target and the missile, computes course corrections and issues commands to the missile. You cannot blind the missile by shining a low-power laser at it (no IR).

        In any case, the Predator took its time to hover around, if the SAM was operating they would have detected it and either tried to shoot it down or drive away or just run. But, again, if an Osa would as much as turn its search radar on the whole NATO will be like a disturbed beehive. Not sending a Predator to hang around and see if it can be hit - it'll probably be F-16s on a Wild Weasel mission with anti-radiation missiles and stuff...

        Chances are that the crew (if there was a crew) was just chilling out inside (the launcher vehicle has nice air conditioning - not for people but for the electronics)...

      2. ratfox

        Drone destroying a SAM in flight

        I thought the same too... but in my mind, the "destroying" part was done by flying still and getting hit.

  8. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


    So was the Osa even turned on when it was hit?

    Also, they say they've destroyed an SA-8 missile? Just one? So was it just lying around near the football field in its container? The vehicle holds 6 missiles (at least the normal one does - don't know about export mods). I saw nothing in the NATO release mentioning that they've actually got the vehicle itself...

    Anyway destroying that launcher (if that's what it was) has no special significance in this case and is no different from, say, destroying a tank, truck or a school bus - an inactive (I bet they did not even have their search antenna raised, let alone spinning) stationary target.

  9. Jeckle

    Score: +1 for Armed forces : 0 civilians

    Warfare for fighter pilots has just got a little more sterile. No stabby stabby blood on the hands stuff, getting your mates' brains on your jam sandwich (ala "Fly Away Peter"). Instead the civs get even more ordinance dropped on them: sorry the cross-hairs on my monitor obscured the cross on the hospital roof, everyone's green with night vision.

    As the Catherine Tremell character in Basic Instinct said: "Somebody has to die, somebody always does" or something to that effect. If its not going to be soldiers its going to be civilians. So now both sides put their soldiers in concrete bunkers and shoot at civilians with their X-Boxes. All that changes are the cliche' excuses that are selected from the Big Black Book of Military Excuses for Generals and Politicians that's been around since before siege weapons were flinging diseased corpses at peasants

  10. El Cid Campeador

    Might want to curb our enthusiasm a bit

    While I agree that unmanned drones are increasingly effective and we will be seeing more of them, I would say that reports of the demise of the manned jet are premature (For the record I was a rotorhead so I don't have a direct stake in this fight... at least not yet). In some ways this reminds me of the missile craze of the 1950s and 1960s where the West removed all guns from ships and fighters, only to find that maybe that wasn't such a good idea after all. There are missions that can certainly be carried out more effectively by drones or missiles--deep strikes on fixed targets, SAM suppression, etc. However, there are missions (close air support and search and rescue come to mind for starters) where having a live pilot on scene who can get a full picture of the situation with no comm lag or limited field of view from a camera will remain critical for the foreseeable future. So, realistically, any commander worth his salt will want both manned and unmanned aircraft so he can select whatever is most appropriate for the mission.

    1. Dave 15 Silver badge


      Frankly a ton or more of high explosive shell dropped 25 miles or so away from a large boat (like HMS Belfast) is a massive amount cheaper than a missile, and I suspect pretty damned useful. Its a blunt instrument, not precision, not stunningly efficient, but dirt cheap and if I was sitting in my little bunker it would be as painful and worrying as cruise missiles. I don't know what shells cost - probably around 50-100 quid each, but the cruise missiles are something close to 800,000 each... you get a lot of shells, even a lot of new gun barrels - for the price of a missile.

      1. Field Commander A9


        and a lot of dead civilians too...

        1. El Cid Campeador

          Not as blunt as you think...

          Naval gunfire is actually surprisingly accurate, especially if you have airborne spotters (some of the first US drones were flown from the Iowa class battleships for that explicit purpose) and the ability to correct fire gets the target taken out quickly and thoroughly, reducing overall collateral damage.

  11. Ian Michael Gumby

    Lewis' argument is flawed.

    I suggest that he look at the history of the US air force post vietnam through pre 9/11.

    The problem in spending $$$ on R&D in order to keep one's edge over a potential aggressor is that tiny brained politico types (yes one has to have a tiny brain to want to go in to politics), is that they need to see a bunch of shinny new toys implementing all the $$$ spent in order to justify the R&D.

    I guess the Chinese aircrafts are behind the US because the US have implemented tighter security controls...

  12. jamougha

    think ahead...

    Current military procurement seems to assume that the technological landscape will stand still. Even the article seems to assume that drones are inevitably flimsy little turboprops. I would be surprised if drones aren't the kings of air superiority shortly after 2020, and yet we are planning to buy F35s in 2018. We should be limiting our investment in new aircraft and putting more into drones and especially drone r&d. The Tanaris program is costing less than two Eurofighters.

  13. Smithyk

    The reasoning is not strong

    I usually find Mr Page's articles extremely interesting, but I think he is distinctly over-egging the argument here. Remote controlled drones are useful against an enemy that has a) no credible anti-aircraft systems, b) no effective airforce of its own and [critically] c) no effective electronic warfare capablity. I will explain these points. Drones do not fly high enough or fast enough to be protected against even a rudimentry anti-aircraft capability - they are easily shot down. The SA8 that is cited in this article could not have turned its radar systems on because then it would have been attacked by fast jets with anti-radar weapons. You also would not waste a missile against a drone when heavy machine guns will do the job. This connects to the second point, drones cannot move quickly or be particuarlly agile because they must be aerodynamically stable. This is due to bandwidth and cost issues. If the drone is agile, it will be aerodynamicaly unstable and the serious computers and sensors necessary to monitor this increase the costs to that of an manned fast jet (the drone is no longer cost effective). Also the bandwidth necessary to communicate with a fast moving drone is massive and the costs of this are extremely high. In addition, there is a communications delay - the faster the drone moves, the more problematic the delay because signals have to be communicated back and forth. This is not a problem wirh turbo props but when the drones start using fast jets - this will be a problem. Unless the drones are operating over short distances (which begs the question - why not use helicopters?) the delays will render them useless against aircraft or even helicopters which will respond quicker. The final point is that any state level adversary will be able to jam the drones. The technology needed to do this is not expensive and can be easily acquired. Mr Page seems to be letting his distaste for the 'fighter mafia' and the defence industry colour his analysis. The manned fighter has a long life yet.

  14. Anonymous Coward

    Hot robot-on-robot action!

    This is what I pay my taxes for!

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters


    "BAE Systems plc...still wields huge and inexplicable clout "

    Yes, it's completely inexplicable why BAe would wield influence out of proportion to its genuine merits.

  16. jamougha

    and another thing...

    Smithyk, the problems you point to can be solved with a combination of more processing power and bandwidth -- things that gets much cheaper over time -- and more intelligence on the drone end rather than groundside.

    Bear in mind that what we're calling 'drones' aren't, in the traditional sense, drones: they fly themselves while the 'pilot' on the ground gives guidance. Shortly they'll be able to complete missions from start to end without human input.

  17. The Infamous Grouse

    The guy in the photo

    It's unclear whether the information in the article's ALT tags is written by Lewis or taken from the metadata in the source photographs, whatever their origin.

    Either way the guy in the second photo has an unusually spelled name, and just 60 seconds on Google has thrown up his LinkedIn profile (with 232 connections), Twitter account (9 followers) and Facebook page (274 friends and family) along with a handful of professional and news pages detailing his expertise both in UAV operations and as a Tornado pilot.

    Maybe I'm too old-school and the nature of privacy, security and warfare has changed too radically for me, but if I spent my working hours blowing large holes in various bits of the Middle East I'm not sure I'd want quite so much information about me and my loved ones available at the stroke of a mouse. Especially with the asymmetric nature of modern warfare.

    Whatever happened to "loose lips"? Or is that level of "need to know" just too difficult to maintain in the modern, all-connected world?

  18. Dave 15 Silver badge

    One thing about 'radio controlled drones'

    I don't know the technology used to control these, my guess is that it involves some frequency of radio, maybe even some sort of changing frequency radio system. Surely this could just be jammed by a 'loud' enough source of radio waves? I suspect under these conditions some mk1 eyeballs connected to a bit of grey matter and various meat covered limbs would prove somewhat more effective.

    1. Yag

      Radio ga-ga

      Anti-jamming systems are used for decades : basically, you switch the emission and reception frequencies at a ludicrous rate on a predetermined (and usually kept secret) pattern. This method also have the advantage of securing communications (hence the secret pattern)

      In order to counter such methods, the opponent have to jam *all* frequencies in the whole radio spectrum - technically difficult, and with the annoying side effect of also jamming own comms.

      Perhaps this is what your "changing frequency radio system" was refering to?

      Also, those drones use satcom with very directional antennas, making them even more difficult to jam.

  19. Dave 15 Silver badge

    Maybe we need a minister of defence that knows something about defence?

    You are basically right, destroying the Harrier fleet and its aircraft carrier was certainly the most stupid option, Typhoon is supposedly better than the Tornado, perhaps scrapping the Tornado would have been the better option (after all the Harrier can defend the fleet and take off when their favourite runway is full of holes - the Tornado can do neither).

    Mind you, the largest cost in an airforce is the capital cost of the planes, really maintenance and even training pale into insignificance, so having bought the planes you might as well keep running them, or perhaps chuck them in a nice dry hanger 'just in case'. Certainly the income from the scrap metal merchant won't do more than buy the top dog an extra lunch.

    1. LDS Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Tornado <> Typhoon <> Harrier

      Typhoon is surely a better fighter than the Tornado ADV, but not a better bomber than the Tornado IDS. "Better" is always a relative term. Better at what? Establishing air superiority? Destroying heavily protected ground targets? The Harrier is "better" if you don't have conventional carrier and need a fleet airplane, but it isn't nor a great fighter nor a great bomber. I would prefer not to be in a Harrier against a Flanker.

      There's no "better" airplane - you have to assess what kind of war you may have to fight, and choose the right weapons. UK was lucky to have Spitfires in 1941, and US was lucky not to have Swordfish-like only planes at Midway. Korean War pilot were not happy to encounter "British powered" MiG-15 until F-86 were deployed (and luckily they had something available). Choose the wrong weapons, and you're dead.

      1. nichomach

        In fairness...

        ...the main type of torpedo bombers that the US had at Midway were in some respects WORSE than Swordfish - they were mostly TBD Devastators and they were shot down in droves. They had 6 of the new Avengers which were slightly better, but all were afflicted by the inadequacies of the torpedo they were equipped with, which required a long straight run in on the target at no more than 100 feet and no more than about 115mph, or the weapon would break up when dropped. Out of 41 TBDs deployed, they lost 35 (they lost 5 out of the 6 Avengers too).

        1. LDS Silver badge

          Yes, but they had dive bombers

          At Midway the torpedo attack was a disaster, because both the Devastator and torpedo quality. But luckily the US Navy had also dive bombers, and won. If they had only torpedo bombers, they would have lost the battle. There was a time when torpedoes looked a better weapon than bombs agains ships, but one thing is attacking the Bismark with no air protection, another attacking Japanese carriers heavily protected by fast and manoeuvrable fighters.

          Preparing for the previous war is always the worst decision, while understanding what kind of weapons the next one requires is not an easy task - letting small skirmish and simulations to guide decisions is always very risky. You may find yourself in a conflict with the wrong weapons. The more versatile a weapon is, the more it can adapt to different scenarios. Weapon systems designed with only one scenario in mind can be almost useless if it doesn't materialize.

          1. nichomach

            No air protection...?

            Bismarck, true. Taranto? No. Worth noting that the low level torpedo attacks had one beneficial effect at Midway; they pulled all the air cover to low level, so the Dauntlesses had a pretty clear run in.

  20. Roger Jenkins


    I find this Predator strike to be both fascinating and thought provoking.

    It looks to me like it is an incredibly stable platform from which to launch a weapon. It is slow enough and low enough to enable the operator to see well and seems to have weapons that are quite precise. The craft is a bit slow and cumbersome in 'real' contested airspace. But when the air defence is weak, why on earth would you use manned assets?

    I sometimes wonder, if you had a large force of these aircraft and they are equipped with air to air, how would you go if you approached a 'hot' airspace, let go of the air to airs when the AWACS says 'go', turn around and run away. When I say a large force I am meaning upwards of 100 of the blighters.

    If I was defending that airspace, I think I'd cut and run. But, maybe that's why I'm not a fighter pilot.

    1. LDS Silver badge

      Air-to-air is different from air-to-ground

      Ground targets are not as fast and evasive as air target. To fire an AA missile with a decent hope of success, you need to move and put yourself in a good firing position - unlike in movies, even missiles needs to obey to the laws of physics and will fail if not properly launched.

      Actual drones may be too slow and not enough manoeuvrable to achieve that against actual fighters. Maybe a large number of drones armed with a couple of AA missiles (but radar self guided missiles are large and heavy) could be used to "saturate" an airspace together with more powerful planes in a first strike situation, but until they get closer in performance to actual fighters they could hardly be used to establish and mantain air superiority in a given space alone.

  21. LDS Silver badge

    Don't infer conclusion by a weak opponent.

    I would like to see Predator/Reaper against the Su-27 family...

    1. /dev/null

      Can't help you with Predator vs. Su-27...

      But here's a video of what happens when Hermes 450 meets MiG-29:

  22. Andrew the Invertebrate

    What Analysis??

    Any chance the powers that be can re-subtitle this article as Opinion or even Soapbox ?

    The anti-RAF, pro-Navy bias is just getting ridiculous. We know that Lewis used to work for the Navy, but is there even the remotest possibilty that he can take of those navy-blue tinted spectacles when he's trying to be a journo?

    Take this shining example for the article :

    "By all means, we might have kept some jets just in case of unforeseen contingencies: the comparatively small Harrier force, and/or perhaps some cheap and capable F-18s from America, would have been good choices both on grounds of cost and ability to fly from carriers. This last is something that neither the Eurofighter nor the Typhoon can do, meaning that they must spend much of their flight time in transit across the Med rather than in the "contested" skies above Libya - and that heroically expensive air-to-air tanking is required to get them there at all."

    We get it Lewis, you think fast jets a utter shite when piloted by the RAF, but are totally essential if the Navy are piloting them. Any chance that the next article about anything vaguely military won't end up blaming the RAF's insistance on flying planes as the cause what ever the article is about?

    Thought not.

    1. Yag

      "re-subtitle this article as Opinion"

      Hey! It's already tagged this way.

      Look at the first line between the titles and the main part of the article : "By Lewis Page"

  23. Graham Bartlett

    Drones and djets

    "drones cannot move quickly or be particuarlly agile because they must be aerodynamically stable ... the serious computers and sensors necessary to monitor this increase the costs to that of an manned fast jet"

    Not necessarily. A missile is very aerodynamically unstable and extremely agile, in exactly the same way as a fast jet. But we'll happily blow up its "serious computers and sensors".

    If you no longer have a pilot involved, you don't care if one falls out of the sky every so often. Use a kill switch to blow it up if it fails to respond, to stop it ploughing into a built-up area, and you've covered your safety angles. Suddenly a multi-billion multi-decade project becomes a multi-million multi-year project. Equally you no longer need most of the armour, all the life-support kit, all the expensive MIL-spec instrumentation (data can be streamed back and displayed in the PC program used by the pilot), etc..

    Sure you need to program up the control software. But that should be a one-shot deal - or at least a process of continuing improvement applicable to all a government's UAVs - assuming there's competent engineers who can write an abstraction layer. Coping with loss of comms, it's simple enough to program up a pylon turn until comms comes back, and avoiding cumulogranite is not too much harder. Avoiding SAMs and stuff like that also becomes a better bet when the plane can take evasive action itself, since the reason planes are missile magnets is that the plane's performance is limited by the G-forces a pilot can take.

    Still more expensive than your average cruise missile, sure. But no need for it to be as expensive as any fast jet, or even than your average jet trainer.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Eurofighters will soon be able to operate from aircraft carriers

    Thanks to the vectored thrust add-on. A bit besides the point as we won't have an aircraft carrier for a decade.

    1. /dev/null


      As long as Eurofighter can find a customer willing to fund the development costs of navalizing the Typhoon and added TVC, wait 5 years longer than they expected and pay twice as much...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Its still in the Indian fighter competition.

        Navalising requires an add on vectored thrust (which is a retro-fit for existing aircraft, already developed and will be standard for new models) and a small amount of re-enforcing that was already designed for previous concepts. It completely changes the carrier approach as well as giving many combat advantages (such as flying with large parts of a wing missing)

        Its infinity less risky and cheaper than the f-35 option, at £200++million each. Even if its five years away it will beat the f-35's into UK sevice by five years.

        However, the F-35 would probably provide billions in offset work.

  25. Jean-Luc

    Article isn't that far off

    True, Lybia is hardly a top-notch opponent. But the presence of a real army of sorts, with real AA capability, of sorts, is a step above a pure counterinsurgency situation. Which is the point that was being made. It's another data point on the trek towards limiting the primacy of manned _combat_ aircraft. It doesn't mean a nation can rely only on UAVs, yet.

    Some points to add. First, low UAVs may be ideally suited to take out high-altitude/high speed/high value SAMs, due to said SAMs not being suited to engage them, regardless of whether they are manned or not. Second, the cost of an UAV makes it semi-disposable in this context. I.e. you could lose plenty of them, as their pilots are safe @ home. Third, when evaluating future air-to-air fighter roles, don't forget that manned aircraft have their maneuverability limited not by their hardware, but by what the pilots can take in G force. So, when combat UAVs are sufficiently advanced, they will have an inherent advantage there. This is a field in its infancy, but Predators are relatively recent arrivals compared to the 15-20 year design cycles of combat aircraft and are very much v1.0 devices, compared to 5th generation jet fighters. Plenty of room for, and need of, improvement.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The achilles heel...

    ... of the drone is the comms uplink required. It's a neat tradeoff though: Kick out the pilot and you suddenly care much less about bringing home the airframe in one piece, or at all. So it doesn't need to be fast or agile, it just needs to be _there_ and you need enough warning to fire off whatever counter for whatever's incoming the thing is carrying.

    But that doesn't work so well against, say, anyone with a jammer (as already mentioned). Or just plain shoot the sats that make it happen out of the night sky. Then what?

    Of course, shooting satellites out of the sky is not something every puny little country would manage. But there probably are a couple that would if pressed.

    It is certainly interesting that where fighter design has solidly derailed in multi-decade morasses of computer modeling and budget overruns, these far simpler drones could be shaken out of a hat inside a couple years. Probably to do with unwillingness to have their own people killed. As in, Rutan's famous remark. "The West[tm]" has stagnated in that respect. A jolly old all out war would fix that right quick, but modern weapons are so destructive these days that nobody dares think of that. So "we" make do with picking on someone not a tenth of "our" "size" instead.

    Why? Well, the military-industrial complex needs to be kept busy, of course. Also why "homeland security" is the ultimate selling point for everything from software to combat boots, and a lot of other things besides. Like dowsing rods.

    The debate drones vs. fighers is thus mostly one of vested interests vs. vested interests. In the end, a complete changeover to drones is probably unwise in the same sense that the "drop the cannon, we've got missiles now" mentioned above been tried at least thrice now, and been proven to be a Very Bad Idea Indeed[tm] at least as often. It's a useful addition as long as the infrastructure required to run it holds, but no more than that. Sometimes you just need people in planes much like you still need people on the ground, and you'll still need at least some of them even if you managed to build entire robot armies. War is much too much a human trait to still make sense with both sides or even just one side entirely dehumanised.

    That infrastructure, though, is decidedly global, and bloody expensive to set up and maintain. It does far more than enable drones, but drones very much depend on both GPS and military comms sats, to the point of being entirely useless without. Should either fail, pretty much nobody on the planet can replace it overnight. There just isn't enough capacity to send it up even if there was enough reserve kit standing by.

    The enabler for these things is the pinnacle of high tech and that is something that stands the highest chance to fail, vanish, or otherwise become unavailable, as soon as you get in a serious war. Now the Americans[tm], though having meddled in small fracas (for them) constantly, haven't had to fight tooth and nail for their very existence in a long, long time. And it shows. Blighty isn't much different, though on a smaller scale.

    As a sidenote: Comes push to shove, we'll see how much they'll care about their "bestest friends". This might be less than expected, though that has next to no bearing on current Blighty acquisition as the USoA has to aquiesce bloody everything already anyway. Then overpriced local assembly is just that much propping up of ailing economies that should've reinvented themselves long ago. To fix that, you have to have better options than "buy (export-rated) american" or "buy european (full of export-rated american tech anyway) for more and get less".

    If there's any point it's that military spending for any sake but its core business, be it the economy, politics, or even the seniority game, is equally valid, which is to say, not very. The core business of the military must be maintaining capability of and excercising force projection (no point pretending it's just for "self defence" but that's covered here too), and procurement must thus be about getting the right kit for the job. Now you can debate just what exactly the job is, but it _isn't_ lining pockets or keeping people "in jobs". If you can't manage that simple bit of focusing your priorities you might as well just give the squaddies the money and send them on permanent vacation. It's so much cheaper, and good for quaint pub maintenance and such. The tax benefits might be even better as alcohol comes with extra duties.

    1. Yag

      Shotting down sats?

      Due to the over reliance on GPS for most military kits, I'm pretty sure such a move will then leave only one kind of weapon efficient : good ol' ICBMs - with megatons, who cares about precision.

  27. Msan

    Another interesting article dimissed...

    The point of this article was a case study illustrating a larger point - the technology and nature of warfare and current and foreseeable battlefields have dramatically changed (Like the shift from trench combat in WWI to urban warfare in WWII) rendering supersonic fighter jets maybe a decade away from becoming functionally extinct.

    This also fits into Lewis's bigger story - British politicians and military brass are persisting with procurement policies that have little to do with the short/medium/long term needs of British forces.

    The heart of the story: If you send 'em in, you have a moral obligation to resource them to the do the job they are charged to do and have the best possible chance of coming home in one piece. If you have a problem with that, then you might want genetic testing to determine what species you belong too.

  28. Denarius Silver badge

    Er, also a misconception there

    Lewis usally writes an interesting article, but gets one little point verifiably wrong. Trading partners do attack each other. Humans may be occasionly rational, but rarely countries. When the mess of WW1 commenced, UK was Imperial Germanys biggest customer. All thru Cold war the USSR was a good customer of USA mega-corps, especially for KGB supplies. PRC has gained immensly from technology transfers. War is conducted by many means, not just weapons that make load bangs.

  29. Charles E

    Drone Attack Methods

    This use of drones shouldn't be particularly surprising. That's what they were invented for. The first drone attack I heard of was by the Israelis, in the 6 day war IIRC. At that time, drones didn't carry weapons. So the Israelis sent a wave of drones at antiaircraft sites. The drones didn't have a very big radar signature, so they got fairly close, then the Egyptians thought they were an incoming attack wave of fighter-bombers. So like a 1/4 scale or less drone gets about 4x closer than a full size plane to give the same radar return.

    So the drones get close, really close, and then the Egyptians turn on the SAM site radars to attack them. The Egyptians think they're shooting at a full attack wave, like 3 or 4x further away than the drones really are. At this point, the REAL attack wave is just popping up over the horizon, now they have fully illuminated radar sites to attack with HARM missiles. Brilliant.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Whatever they did it was not that...

      "The Egyptians think they're shooting at a full attack wave, like 3 or 4x further away than the drones really are."

      Except radiolocation has very little to do with the size of the echo. From practical point of view the radar cross-section of a target affects the distance at which it can be detected given the power and sensitivity of a specific radar station. If you see a return at all (and not taking into account any electronic countermeasures) you determine the position of the target by the angles (azimuth and elevation) and distance by the timing of the returns.

      So, you cannot fool a radar by showing it a "smaller than usual" target (there are ways of doing it which depend on the type of the radar you want to deal with, but they are all much more sophisticated than that).

  30. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Good point on drone comm links

    The US thought that John Afghan could *never* read their drones video feeds.

    Turns out they were wrong.

    Taking over control is *probably* too hard, *jamming* them (so it goes into some kind of safe mode, whatever that is) should *certainly* be possible.

    They've been getting *more* autonomous (I think takeoff is now a canned procedure in some of them) but good enough to continue an attack *without* direct commands?

    I think the force mix *should* be mostly drones. But humans in the loop and sometimes in the air give the *most* flexibility.

  31. Knochen Brittle

    Page's latest coredump exemplifies practically everything I hate about Imperialist Apparatchiks

    programmed adherence to hypocritical exploitation by seasoned war-criminal nations of an à-la-carte 'human rights' pretext to impose control on a weakened oil-rich country via civil war + intervention, where politically expedient ~ check

    trite regurgitation of official 'good' propaganda ~ check

    determined ignorance of legal/moral issues ~ check

    two-minutes hate against flavour-of-the-week 'evil' ~ here 'Mad Dictators/Military Juntas' ~ check

    orgasms of jingoist triumphalism over every bomb dropped by 'our' side ~ check

    blatant lying ~ "NATO has been up against an enemy air force in Libya" ~ check

    circular-logical presumption that warfare's only real cost is hardware, therefore, if 'we' only lose hardware, 'we' won + it was all retroactively justified [which neatly omits to account for 'badwill' generated] ~ check

    warmonglerish lining up of relatively intact human societies as future targets for fun + budget reasons ~ check

    tacit admission that 'The West' is essentially a military-industrial complex dictatorship, but that's OK, 'cos we have the bestest wartoys, yayy! ~ check

    faux-concern for the taxpayer whose pocket he habitually dips ~ check

    doublethink ability to condemn a 'profiteering and bureaucratic empire' while blind to the fact it is a mere sub-assembly of the bankrupt and lawless U$A World Inc. which he mindlessly supports ~ check

    Imagine Mr Fagin has expanded business into a global mafia ~ Lewis is still one of the impish street-urchins, but in this Hi-Tech HappyWorld™ he and other gleeful cohorts are gifted banks of PlayStations controlling drones to remotely bomb whomsoever resisteth the hegemonic diktat of their morally and fiscally bankrupt master[class].

    I'm convinced you have to be a robot [or at least fairly efficiently brainwashed] to think like Lewis Page.

    As you were, SeaLord Page [with minions bowed afore ye!]

  32. laird cummings

    Too over-the-top

    I generally like Lewis, but this is too over-the-top.

    People have been predicting the demise of the tank (and other assorted AFVs) ever since teh advent of the RPG/Bazooka/man-portable ATGM. Hasn't happened. Instead, the combat environment simply got a lot less simple.

    Well, this is a precise parallel - you don't send a full-up air raid to pot a single missle. You send an armed drone, as happened. Full-up air raids are for establishing full dominance of the combat zone versus mobile high-value targets - Which is kinda exactly what happened early on in Libya.

    And don't whine about the cruise missiles - those are reserved for *immobile* high-value targets.

  33. JaitcH

    China is hopelessly behind, ... recent testing of a so-called "stealth fighter" prototype indicates

    Anyone subscribing to this sentence is somewhat delusional. The existence of the Chinese copy of the U.S. 'stealth' aircraft made the Americans sit up and pay attention. After a U.S. stealth aircraft was downed during the Kosovo non-war the Chinese went around buying, for cash, all the scraps of the plane from which they designed/rebuilt for their own air force.

    U.S. analysts estimate the Chinese are only about 4 years behind in this project which means they will be current in a couple of years time.

    They already make civilian and military aircraft and are on the way to launching a space station, unaided, which lends further credence to the fact they are sufficiently technologically advanced to match the U.S. on an equal footing.

    The West has supplied much of the IP and technology to the Chinese in the rush to acquire modern products are amazingly low cost. If anyone thinks the Chinese even honour production agreements they are fools. Nothing made in China is privy to the manufacturers - all can be considered shared with the military manufacturers.

    China leads the world in the use of high-speed transportation; in building railways in poor conditions, etc. They have a very healthy integrated circuit design and manufacturing industry and even though they might not be up to the latest standards used by Intel, they are not far behind.

    The Chinese are currently preparing to build aircraft carriers - of which the UK has none!

    The Russians have long had jet fighters that can take off in inclement conditions, including grass or mud fields. The U.S. jets require runways be 'walked' before they can be used to remove all debris, etc. before their jets can take off.

    The U.S. is an unreliable source for products as it retains control of their use, in the fashion of Apple, even after delivery to it's customers. It has even flexed it's muscles when the UK used U.S. facilities to execute military missions that didn't meet American expectations.

    Today's military weapons are so advanced that even shells can be 'programmed' on the fly and this includes rendering them harmless - other than for the fact a whole hunk of metal is headed your way.

    Ghadaffi was dumb to buy American weapons with smart technology, he should have bought supplies from the Russians or Chinese whose less sophisticated weapons still work even when fired at the suppliers.

    Even the British had to seek technological assistance from the French in order to neutralise missiles fired by the Argentinians during the Thatcher Falklands escapade.

    Now that Britain is essentially stripped of it's advanced military industries it is little better than Ghadaffi being dependent upon others for it's military capability, such that it is. Hell, they even depend on U.S. designed radio systems.

    Rule Britannia should be read as Fool Britannia (tip of the hat to Fool Britannia (1963) with Peter Sellars, Anthony Newley and Joan Collins)

  34. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Lightning riders make lousy bus drivers.

    20 years ago when I was doing my flight training it was widely recognised that ex-combat pilots are an extremely poor choice for transport aircraft as they are easily bored and take unnecessary risks, leading to disproportionately high levels of "incidents" in the transport industry.

    That's WHY there are so many ab-inito flight training schools in existance now. Not because there aren't enough ex-military pilots available - among other things, flyboys tend to forget there are a significant number of other human beings riding in the back when in marginal flying conditions.

    I won't hire Lewis Hamilton to drive minibusses when he retires from F1 either.

    As for drones - they make a hell of a lot of sense. Air forces have been trying to go pilotless for decades as the onboard meatsack can't take more than ~10G whilst airframes can easily be designed to take 4 times that much.

  35. Supplicant

    You're not thinking this all the way through.

    "This profiteering and bureaucratic empire-preservation won't go away overnight because of one Predator strike, of course, or even hundreds of Predator strikes."

    Pick the right targets and you can put an end to quite a bit of bureaucratic nonsense.

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