Unmanned Cargo Aircraft!

A Paradigm Shift for Theatre and Tactical Level Logistics in Asymmetric Conflicts?

By Lieutenant Colonel

By Lt Col


 van de Ven

, NE


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2012-2015)

 September 2014


A decade ago unmanned aircraft were a virtually ­unknown phenomenon. Today, thousands are in use worldwide and the use for military and civil applications is growing very fast. One of those applications is Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (UCA). The Advisory Council for Aviation Research and Innovation in Europe (ACARE) assumes in her strategic 2011 agenda1 that cargo planes will be the first to fly fully automated before 2050. Where operational military use of Remotely ­Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS) so far was limited to ­Intel, Communication and Combat (Air-to-Ground) missions, new developments in the area of logistics are explored. A good example is the US Naval Air Systems Command initiative to send Cargo Unmanned Aircraft Systems demonstrators (K-Max helicopters) to Afghanistan. This initiative is considered to be successful2 and further improvements and developments are in progress. An example of the latter are the demos at Fort Pickett in Virginia in 2013, which included passing high-definition video to the operator providing improved situational awareness, dynamic mission re-planning, and autonomous obstacle avoidance and landing-zone selection as well as autonomous retrograde capability – bringing cargo back. The latter has been accomplished manually with the unmanned ­K-Max in Afghanistan with Marine Corps personnel making ‘hot hook-ups’ to the hovering helicopter, but with the new technology the unmanned helicopter will fly in, identify the load, autonomously attach its hook and fly away.

Another initiative in this field is the Autonomous Aerial Cargo / Utility System (AACUS) which is an Innovative Naval Prototype program. The AACUS program’s aim is to explore advanced autonomous capabilities for reliable resupply / retrograde and, in the long term, casualty evacuation by unmanned air vehicles under adverse conditions. Key features of AACUS include auto­nomously navigating to find and land at an unprepared landing site in dynamic operational (hostile) and various weather conditions, day and night, preferably without help from a ground controller3.


The article’s aim is to highlight the increasing importance and the rapid development and applications of Unmanned Cargo Aircraft both on the military as the civilian side. The article will elaborate on the developments and the use of UCA in general and more specific­ally on the military employment at the operational / theatre and tactical level. Airspace integration of UCA is a future prerequisite. However, this will not be discussed in the article. Developments on the civilian side will also be touched upon, because today there is so much synergy to achieve between military and civilian capabilities and solutions, especially in the field of Logistics4.


Unmanned Aircraft can offer important advantages for cargo transport5. Savings on salaries are perhaps the least significant, although one ground controller can control ten or more UCA en route. Because there is no crew on board, a UCA can take days to reach its destination, flying at speeds optimized for efficient and environmentally friendly turboprop engines, above most weather but below congested airspace used by today’s airliners. Because crew and vehicle are decoupled, a UCA only needs to return to its home base for maintenance. Furthermore, UCA may not need pressurized cabins, merely conditioned containers for some types of cargo. This saves 10 – 20 % of empty weight and eliminates the need for a circular cabin, making new body structures feasible which may lead to reducing drag by 15 – 20 % and thus becoming more fuel efficient. Finally, empty return flights and rejection of loads because of scheduling issues may be largely avoided. Even if a direct flight from an emerging economic region in Asia or Africa to consumers in Europe takes a day, this may well be less than transport via hubs or by means of surface or sea transport. It is foreseen that direct flights on thin routes is the area where UCA should excel, since it is expected that the advantages of ‘unmanned’ ­manifest themselves particularly in medium sized aircraft with a payload of 5 – 20 tons. This is mainly because unmanned competitors of large aircraft like the Boeing 747 are expensive to develop and probably cannot economically compete with today’s passenger aircraft carrying belly freight.

Because of the advantages of smaller unmanned aircraft, UCA have the potential for unlocking the economic potential of areas with inadequate infrastructure or with limited volumes of cargo to be transported. If these areas are hundreds of kilometres from hub airports, UCA may be used to transport cargo directly to customers over intercontinental distances. So whereas the Internet made exchange of information from anywhere to everywhere possible, perhaps UCA can do the same for small volumes of cargo6.

Military Use of Unmanned Cargo Aircraft at Theatre Level

As mentioned in the introduction, US Armed Forces are at the fore front of exploring the opportunities and advantages of UCA in operations especially at the tactical and theatre level. Although the use of UCA in operations is still in its infancy, existing technology and the rapid development of new technologies should make it possible that UCA will continue to develop into full-fledged systems quickly. But why should we opt for UCA in operations? Developing and operating such a capability is expensive and in times of fiscal austerity money counts.

Current and most probably many future operations are characterized by asymmetric warfare where troops will be deployed to austere and remote Forward Oper­ating Bases (FOBs) from where they will conduct their operations by foot or mounted. Such environments typically lack a safe rear area and adequate ­infrastructure and lines of communication. However, the conventional and prevailing method for replenish­ing these FOBs today is the use of truck convoys and / or when circumstances dictate, through the use of (expensive) scarce manned rotary wing assets. Unfortunately the adversary’s increasing use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) greatly affects truck mobility throughout the battlefield and has been proven to be successful in Afghanistan. Replenishment procedures have slowed down due to lengthy, deliberate routes and time-consuming IED clearance tactics. In addition, these delays increase the time own troops are exposed to attacks. Many incidents have been reported over the past recent years in ISAF / Afghanistan where numerous convoys have suffered significant material and human losses.

How cargo replenishment of FOBs is conducted depends on the number of soldiers stationed at those FOBs, the kind of operation (high / low intensity), how far away those FOBs are from the Main Operating Base (MOB), and the level of threat expected en route to those FOBs. All supply materials will be sent from MOBs and replenish the FOBs in a hub-and-spoke supply chain. Each of these variables plays a major role in the cost of replenishment operations. All cargo systems use fossil fuel, but the use of manpower ­differs greatly between rotary and ground convoys. The latter has to be accompanied by significant Force ­Protection (including their armoured vehicles) and military transport helicopters generally will be accompanied by one or more armed helicopters. If UCA can replace some of these armoured vehicles and / or (armed) helicopters, then cost savings will occur and in case of helicopter resupply, very scarce assets will come available for ‘more important’ commitments. A Business Case Analysis conducted by two students from the US Naval Postgraduate School7 concludes that UCA are a viable and affordable resupply alter­native taking into account that fewer personnel and trucks or helicopters are required. But above all the use of UCA will reduce the risk of casualities or loss of lives which is, especially with the prevailing critical public opinion in most nations into mind, a huge strategic advantage. The use of UCA in operations, however, also involves other challenges i.e. technological risk (component reliability), threat resulting in attrition and performance risk (will new technology meet oper­ational requirements?) which of course have to be taken into account as well when comparing with conventional supply options.

As military UCA development will continue other advantages might occur as well. It’s expected that their endurance, not limited by the pilot, will increase and they will be better able to operate day and night and in weather and (landing) terrain conditions unsuitable for manned aircraft. The cost of these UCA might in the end be lower than manned aircraft due to the fact that they are specifically designed for one task, probably not carrying any or limited self-protection systems and optimized and therefore efficient for the limited (up to 6 tons) lift capacity. And because their speed may be greater than that of helicopters, they will be also less susceptible to ground fire. From a cost perspective it thus will become more efficient as well. For transport of personnel, manned assets will still be needed in the foreseeable future (although this may change) but with proper scheduling the number of personnel transport missions should be reduced significantly.

Military Use of Small Unmanned Cargo Aircraft at Tactical Level

UCA initiatives have so far been limited to the supply of FOBs. Given the large quantities of supplies and distances involved in these cases, it is required that these UCA have ample payload and reach capabilities. Because of these and other requirements these UCA will be relatively large and complex systems. Therefore they will be relatively expensive to procure and operate, and too large for some applications, and thus by nature only available in limited numbers automatically leading to the decision of operating these UCA at least at theatre level for the benefit of deployed units of battalion size and up. However, there might be a need for smaller UCA at the tactical level as well.

When mentioning resupplying of units at the tactical level, the focus is on infantry and Special Operations Forces (SOF) units up to company level. These units, although often based at remote FOBs, will have to leave their bases to execute their actual task. During these missions, which are foot patrols or small (armoured) convoys, often under extreme terrain and weather conditions, they are limited to the supplies they can carry. It’s in such situations that small tactical UCA might be of great value, while in order to increase the unit’s sustainability resupply is necessary. But also in case of changing circumstances or an emergency, it might be necessary to quickly resupply a unit with water, food, medicines, ammunition and spare parts. At this time the only possibility is to resupply by helicopter or by a Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS), but in case of enemy contact or in a high threat area a UCA might be a better and safer solution. Also much of the control and support infrastructure for larger UCA may also be used for tactical level UCA. This should give significant advantages-of-scale for initial non-recurring investments in infrastructure.

So far no official doctrine has been written on the use of UCA as a tactical enabler, but thoughts go in the direction of UCA able to move cargo up to 30 – 50 kg. This kind of UCA won’t be very expensive and therefore be available at the tactical level in significant numbers. Technology developments are moving fast and it can be foreseen that this kind of small UCA in the near term will be available and meet the user’s requirements at a low cost.


Although the development and use of Unmanned Cargo Aircraft is still in its infancy, recent initiatives and new developments based on already existing techno­logy look very promising. So far, existing manned systems were turned into unmanned versions, but when UCA in the future will be developed specifically to fit specific logistic requirements, they should become much more capable and above all cheaper to buy and operate. The use of UCA at theatre level has proven to be successful both from a technological perspective and from the side of the operational user. The next step might be the applicability of small systems to support the tactical level in their operations as well. Last but not least, civil developments parallel and ­expectedly in conjunction with the military will be booming. It is expected that there is a huge market for small UCA operated by i.e. parcel delivery companies and medium sized UCA which are more efficient on thin routes in or to more remote areas. It is therefore that there will be a great opportunity for both the industry as the military to move forward hand in hand gaining synergy and benefit from each other’s will to create a future where UCA will add economic and operational value, and above all saves lives when it comes to military operations. Therefore JAPCC is eager to keep hold on new initiatives and developments in this field for instance by following these devel­opments via the ‘Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft’ (http://www.platformuca.org/).

Flight Path 2050 – Europe’s Vision for Aviation.
2. http://www.defensesystems.com/Articles/2014/07/30/Marines-K-MAX-unmanned-helicopter.aspx?Page=1.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Logistics Applications RAND Corporation, http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG978.html.
The future of Unmanned Flight by Professor Hans Heerkens, University of Twente, The Netherlands, Mar. 2013.
Business Case Analysis of Cargo Unmanned Aircraft System Capability in Support of Forward Deployed Logistics in OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM, Troy M. Peterson, and Jason R. Staley, Naval Postgraduate School, Dec. 2011.
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Lieutenant Colonel
 van de Ven
Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2012-2015)

Lieutenant Colonel Erik van de Ven graduated from the Military Academy (The Netherlands) in 1992 as an Army Engineer. After serving as a Combat Engineer performing several command and supportive functions at unit level, he made the switch to the Royal Netherlands Air Force. As an Air Force Logistics Officer he gained meanwhile over 15 years of experience in the wide logistic spectrum: supply, maintenance, infrastructure and contracting. Lieutenant Colonel van de Ven held positions to include Squadron Commander, Supply Chain Manager, J4/Operational Logistics Planner and various other Staff Officer functions. He is currently employed as Subject Matter Expert in Logistics at the Air Operations Support branch of the JAPCC.

Information provided is current as of September 2014

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