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Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Military Intelligence

“Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Military Intelligence”


Advancements in technology have had a beneficial and profound effect on the military intelligence enterprise. Advances in military weapon systems and capabilities throughout history have required nations to continuously adopt modern combat tactics to prevail in battle and to defeat opposing forces. Today, advancements in electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, aerospace engineering, science, computers, and communications, have led to more capable militaries with deadlier capabilities. One significant technological advancement that has revolutionized U.S military intelligence and has drastically changed the way in which war is conducted is the advancements in Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

In this briefing, we will discuss and evaluate how this significant technological development has impacted military intelligence. First, we will define and describe the RPA technological advance. Next, we will discuss how RPA’s have impacted U.S military intelligence and if the military has embraced the technology. We will assess the technology by specifically evaluating how RPA’s have enhanced U.S military intelligence capabilities. We will discuss the history, drive for the technology, and the challenges as a result of its integration in U.S military intelligence. Finally, we will conclude with the technological impact on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfare.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft

RPA is an acronym the United States Department of Defense (DOD) uses which refers to a Remotely Piloted Aircraft. Several other designations have been widely used throughout the U.S government and military industry such as; Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV), Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or simply Drones. According to U.S Army General Martin E. Dempsey, the U.S Military prefers the use of the term RPA over any other designation that describes the system as being “unmanned.” This is due in fact that these aircraft are not crewless at all. Alternatively, they are piloted by one pilot and one sensor operator remotely from outside the aircraft.[1] The three most prevalent RPA systems the DOD utilizes to conduct missions has been the MQ-1B Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper, and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. These aircraft are outfitted with a wide range of sensors and systems that offer a wide range of capabilities. According to the U.S. Air Force Fact Sheets, “the baseline for today’s RPA systems carry the Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MTS), which has a robust suite of visual sensors for tracking and targeting. The MTS integrates an infrared sensor, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, image-intensified TV camera, laser range finder/designator, and laser illuminator”.[2] RPA’s are also equipped with a synthetic aperture radar, which precisely designates targets for employment of laser-guided munitions. They can deliver Air-to-Ground Missile (AGM)-114 Hellfire missiles, which provide highly accurate, low-collateral damage, anti-personnel, vehicle, and structural engagement capabilities.[3]

At the most rudimentary level of explanation of its operation, the aircraft takes off from a runway and is flown to an Area of Operations (AO). From there the aircraft loiters around to collect and transmit information from various onboard computers, sensors, and cameras to an orbiting satellite. The satellite then transmits this signal directly to a manned ground and control station where a pilot operates the RPA in a secure location. The live transmission link from the onboard sensors and cameras may also be shared for view at other locations, such as directly to the warfighter on the ground, commanders in the AO, or to the decision makers and intelligence analysts outside the AO. This is a significant capability.

RPA’s and Military Intelligence

RPA Technology has impacted military intelligence in a variety of ways. RPA’s have significantly revolutionized military intelligence capabilities for Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Measurement Intelligence (MASINT), and the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) disciplines. As an intelligence collection asset, RPA’s are capable of providing, aerial photography, real-time imaging, and information. As mentioned, the full-motion enhanced video from each of the high definition imaging sensors can be viewed in real time by commanders and leadership from multiple centers and areas around the world, making it the ultimate intelligence gathering platform. RPA’s can also utilize FLIR thermal infrared imaging sensors that are effective for both night and day operations. “They provide troops with a 24-hour “eye in the sky,” seven days a week. Each aircraft can stay aloft for up to 17 hours at a time, loitering over an area and sending back real-time imagery of activities on the ground”.[4] Having this capability allows commanders to have actionable intelligence to make rapid and informative decisions.

RPA’s are also capable of being outfitted with sensors capable of gathering intelligence on Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) on the ground to better inform command and control centers of the type of threats present on the ground. In remote locations where military units operate, an RPA flying overhead allows the ground units to have a more effective communication link to transfer their information to their commanders outside the AO. RPA’s are capable of intercepting frequencies from communication devices and radars that accurately enable for precise location of enemy locations on the ground. They provide a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value and time-sensitive targets.[5] These systems are also capable of performing close air support, Battle Damage Assessments, combat search and rescue, tactical overwatch, target development, and terminal air guidance.[6] Overall, RPA’s have substantially improved the timeliness of actionable battlefield intelligence while reducing the risk of capture or loss of a human-crewed aircraft.

Integrating the RPA

The U.S Military has embraced RPA technology, and today they are a critical component for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions and provide the United States with many advantageous capabilities. RPA’s have been utilized as a multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance platform that is employed primarily as an intelligence collection asset and secondarily for conducting kinetic strikes against dynamic targets. The military role of RPA systems is growing at extraordinary rates. According to a report done by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the Pentagon has somewhere in the range of 7,000 RPA systems, compared with fewer than 50 about a decade ago.[7] That number is steadily increasing. According to Dan Gettinger of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, the U.S Department of Defense has requested approximately $9.39 billion for unmanned systems and associated technologies in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget.[8] This proposal includes funding for the procurement of 3,447 new air, ground, and sea drones.[9] The Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal represents a significant expansion in spending over the Fiscal Year 2018’s requested budget, which contained approximately $7.5 billion in unmanned-related spending and orders for 807 drones.[10] Accounting for more than half of the requested budget, the DOD has requested more than $6 billion in spending for RPA systems alone for 2019.[11] These figures suggest that a steady increase in demand for the technology remains.

Military Drive for the Technology

RPA technology has been around for quite some time. Over years of technological innovation, the U.S has some of the most sophisticated systems to date. Before the advanced RPA systems utilized today, during the 1960s, the only non-experimental aircraft available to the U.S that was capable of providing high-quality IMINT was the human-crewed U-2 spy plane. During the Cold War, the need for IMINT was critical for the U.S. The U.S utilized the human-crewed U-2 spy plane to conduct dangerous Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions deep into communist territory. In such a tense period in history, concerns appeared about the negative publicity from the foreseen capture of U.S airmen on enemy territory. In May 1960, the U.S was eventually horrified when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR territory.[12] Thus, began an intensified effort to develop a remotely piloted aircraft capable of conducting ISR missions in a safer more effective manner. Within a few months of the downing of the U-2, the highly classified UAV the AQM-34 Ryan Firebee was produced and was prevalent throughout the War in Vietnam.[13] After the war in Vietnam, the U.S found that these programs quickly ran over budget and were too expensive to pursue on a larger scale for the future. However, that would change in the 1980s.

During the 1980s the Israeli Air Force utilized a weaponized unmanned aircraft system in Lebanon called the Pioneer. Their extensive use reinvigorated American interest in the technology. Fascinated by the Pioneer, the Navy acquired numerous systems and began increasing acquisition and research in 1987. The advancements and success of the Pioneer in Desert Storm drove the Department of Defense spending over $3 billion on the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator aerial system during the 1990s.[14] Initially, developed for ISR forward observation roles, the Predator was eventually outfitted to fire AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Their extensive and continued use began during the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) after the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Currently the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) overseas the targeted killing program which utilizes the systems to strike individuals across the globe including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and the Philippines.[15] The DOD has utilized RPA systems more so to the full extent of their forward observation and intelligence collection abilities rather than their targeted strike capabilities.


The development of RPA systems has been an extremely invaluable asset to military intelligence yet challenging. With the DOD still actively increasing funding for their indefinite use, it has come with a few significant challenges to operate and provide the human resources for these systems. For one, although the operation of a single RPA system requires only one pilot and one sensor operator, there is a substantial amount of personnel and intelligence analysts required to support the pilot and sensor operators. According to a report conducted by the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, the accelerated increase of UAS inventories to meet operational demands raises many issues concerning the military services’ capacity to sustain these inventories in the near and long term. “In particular, to support their UAS inventories, the military services must train sufficient numbers of personnel to operate and maintain the aircraft, provide adequate facilities and other infrastructure to sustain them, and provide sufficient access to airspace and training ranges to train military personnel within the United States and at military bases overseas”.[16]

Equally, challenging is the technological impact on intelligence collection. Technological innovations such as RPA systems for ISR collection might seem to make an intelligence analysts job easier, but in fact, it is often even more challenging. There is a vast human cognitive intensive process required to process, analyze, produce, and disseminate the intelligence these systems and sensors are gathering. According to Army General Dempsey, “there are more than 80 people for each remotely piloted vehicle. They operate, maintain the aircraft, and analyze a considerable amount of the information gathered”.[17] That is a significant number of analysts and personnel to operate a single RPA. With the requested 2019 FY budget increase for RPA systems, the need for more personnel required to analyze and maintain the quality of intelligence. As U.S Airforce Major Joel Pauls states in a report on unmanned aerial systems, “the massive quantity of information produced by RPA’s can have negative effects if that information is not properly analyzed and distributed. RPA’s like any other instrument of warfare, are only as effective as the military professional that operates them”.[18]

The substantial research and development that is put into RPA systems to collect MASINT, SIGINT, and IMINT is also a challenge and may have diminishing returns in other areas of military intelligence and intelligence disciplines. According to a report conducted by Mark Pomerleau, “Unmanned aircraft serve as a dual signals intelligence (SIGINT) and image intelligence (IMINT) platform, keeping personnel out of harm’s way while simultaneously providing a nearly unblinking eye on targets”.[19] This is a significant capability but requires significant analysis to evaluate intercepted communications, break codes, assess image and video, evaluate data, among other tasks. “Some have indicated that there is an apparent under-reliance on HUMINT that has come at a price, resulting in various intelligence failures”.[20] Pomerleau expressed that, “high-tech intelligence has enabled operations in regions with no human presence, creating, some might say, a moral hazard of sorts”.[21] Pomerleau continues to state that, “this is not to say that technological reliance is all bad. Various SIGINT tools and collection capabilities have played an important part in tracking valuable assets and adding greater context to case files”.[22] However, the key here is that with the strong push and increase for technological research and innovation into RPA systems, it can draw energy, resources, and analysis away from other military intelligence disciplines.

Conclusions and Impact on the Levels of Warfare

RPA’s have had a positive effect on the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfare and have “cemented their place in the military’s force structure”.[23] At the operational and strategic levels, RPA’s have assisted commanders in improving their operations by having “eyes on” a situation and enabling for more informed decision making by having actionable ISR at their fingertips. For policymakers, they are a critical component of today’s counterterrorism operations. According to a case study conducted by USAF Major Joel Pauls, RPA technology have aided in “facilitating a faster operational tempo and extend operational reach, while reducing risk to both the forces and the mission. This has given commanders and policymakers an advantage that helps them seize and maintain the initiative while connecting tactical actions in time, space, and purpose, to achieve operational and strategic objectives”.[24] At times commanders and policymakers are at a standstill and will not make decisions without the critical RPA asset.

Although RPA’s have increased the information available to policymakers and commanders at all levels of warfare, they have not always provided or distributed intelligence evenly. According to a report conducted by Collier Crouch at the Naval Postgraduate School, at times, “UAV systems have been deployed at the strategic and operational levels and provided very little real-time intelligence and feedback for tactical users. Larger units (battalion strength and larger) have little problem integrating UAV units into operations, but the control of these units is usually dedicated to fulfilling battalion level and higher tasking. Tactical users at the squad and platoon level, as well as special operations units, have at times had little ability to obtain information from these strategic-level assets. The information from these strategic-level units is usually routed to a processing center and then sent to tactical units with a large delay. Tactical users are denied real-time and near-real-time data that are immediately applicable to operations as they engage the enemy”.[25] To close this gap at the tactical level of warfare, the DOD has expanded its research, development, and integration of smaller RPA systems dedicated to small unit commanders in the 2019 FY DOD budget. According to Dan Gettinger of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, in the 2019 FY proposed defense budget, the DOD has requested $279 million for funding of approximately 3,070 new small RPA systems.[26] This is a significant increase from the 2018 FY budget of $89 million for small RPA systems. As also mentioned by Gettinger, “most existing unmanned aircraft in the U.S. military’s inventory are fixed-wing systems that are battalion-level assets designed for short to medium range reconnaissance”.[27] Significantly expanding the DOD’s inventory of smaller RPA systems to close the gap for smaller tactical units would be quite beneficial to military intelligence and to ground forces that need instant situational awareness during critical missions.




[1] Garamone, Jim. (2014) “Military Uses Remotely Piloted Aircraft Ethically”, Joint Chiefs of Staff, (American Forces Press Service).

[2] United States Air Force. (2015), “MQ-9 Reaper Fact Sheet”, USAF Library

[3] Ibid

[4] United States Air Force. (2015), “MQ-9 Reaper Fact Sheet”, USAF Library

[5] Ibid

[6] United States Air Force. (2015), “MQ-9 Reaper Fact Sheet”, USAF Library

[7] Friends Committee on National Legislation, “Middle East & Iran, U.S. Wars & Militarism: Understanding Drones”. Accessed February 10, 2019.

[8] Gettinger, Dan. (2018). “Summary of Drone Spending in the FY 2019 Defense Budget Request”, (Center for the Study of the Drone At Bard College). 1-3.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Gettinger, Dan. (2018). “Summary of Drone Spending in the FY 2019 Defense Budget Request”, (Center for the Study of the Drone At Bard College). 1-3.

[12] Shaw, Ian. (2016), Understanding Empire: Technology, Power, Politics, “The Rise of the Predator Empire: Tracing the History of U.S. Drones”,  (Word Press).

[13] Callam, Andrew. (2010), “Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”, International Affairs Review, (George Washington University).

[14] Office of the Secretary of Defense, (2002). “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Roadmap 2002-2027”, Washington, DC: United States Department of Defense. p.19. Accessed February 10, 2019.

[15] Friends Committee on National Legislation, “Middle East & Iran, U.S. Wars & Militarism: Understanding Drones”. Accessed February 10, 2019.

[16] Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, (2012). “Report to Congress on Future Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training, Operations, and Sustainability”, Washington, DC: United States Department of Defense. p.ii. Accessed February 10, 2019.

[17]  Garamone, Jim. (2014) “Military Uses Remotely Piloted Aircraft Ethically”, Joint Chiefs of Staff, (American Forces Press Service).

[18] Pauls, Joel E. Major, United States Air Force (2012). “The Impact of Unmanned Aerial Systems on Joint Operational Art”. (School of Advanced Military Studies United States Army Command and General Staff College). 48.

[19] Pomerleau, Mark. (2016). “Technology’s Impact on Intelligence Collection”. (The Hill). Accessed February 11, 2019.

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Pauls, Joel E. Major, United States Air Force (2012). “The Impact of Unmanned Aerial Systems on Joint Operational Art”. (School of Advanced Military Studies United States Army Command and General Staff College). 48.

[24] Pauls, Joel E. Major, United States Air Force (2012). “The Impact of Unmanned Aerial Systems on Joint Operational Art”. (School of Advanced Military Studies United States Army Command and General Staff College). 48.

[25] Crouch, Collier C. (2005). “Integration of Mini-UAVS at the Tactical Operations Level: Implication of Operations, Implementation, and Information Sharing”. Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School.

[26] Gettinger, Dan. (2018). “Summary of Drone Spending in the FY 2019 Defense Budget Request”, (Center for the Study of the Drone At Bard College). 3-4.

[27] Ibid

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