The drone that didn’t crash

David Axe has a good piece on how vulnerable drones are to any kind of organised air defence.

“The predominant use of RPAs [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] over the past decade has been passive [intelligence] collection coupled with air-to-ground strikes in permissive airspace,” Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis tells Danger Room. “There’s very little about their current capabilities — from their speed to their maneuverability to the range of visibility afforded to operators — that encourages operators to arm or employ them for air-to-air engagements in defended airspace.”

I thought I’d use this as a hanger to discuss a point I wanted to make in a row on Crooked Timber a little while back. Basically, it’s possible to deduce how much the Pakistani government really supports the drone program by looking for clues. Supposedly, the Americans just fax them a list and presume that they agree if no objection comes back.

However, we very rarely hear of a drone colliding with another aircraft over Pakistan. (In fact, the only cases I can think of were in Afghanistan, in airspace the US Air Force controlled.) Neither, so far as anyone knows, does the Pakistan Air Force (which is quite large, has modern aircraft, radars, and command-and-control systems, and did well against India and also in engagements with the Soviets during the 80s) treat them as unidentified contacts and intercept them for identification, still less shoot them down. Pakistan has carried out some very large military operations in the same places where the drones operate, using their air force, their army’s helicopters, which would tend to work in exactly the same air space as the drones, and indeed their own surveillance drones.

How did they manage? The answer is one word: deconfliction. Deconfliction is the process of planning air operations (peaceful or warlike) so that they do not conflict with each other. The fast jets have to keep out of area Z below 15,000 feet before 0650 so that the army helicopters can transit through it safely, while the drone has to stay above the close air support planes’ killbox and below the refuelling tanker’s high altitude towline pattern. It’s basically what air traffic controllers do, but completely vital if you want to use air power without this happening.

Now, as far as anyone knows, the US doesn’t object to Pakistani operations on the NW Frontier. Quite the opposite. This implies that the CIA is also deconflicting its drone flying programme to facilitate Pakistani operations.

It’s possible that both parties fax (fax!) each other tomorrow’s flypro, they never reply or acknowledge it, but the air-tasking cell on both sides acts on the information. It is certain, however, that they are cooperating, because of the lack of regular drone-Mi8 helicopter collisions, drone/fighter intercepts, etc.

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