At Russia’s MAKS 2007 air show revealed a new toy in the works. That is a new unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) called the Skat.
It looks a bit like the US navy’s X-47B and is not groundbreaking technology. The air show version was only a wooden mock-up, so there is still a lot to learn about its future capabilities. The Skat will probably be able to deploy weapons, just like all the other UCAV being developed in many countries.
It will take a lot of work and effort before the new UCAV is operational but they are working on it and it is worth giving attention. Russia produces some of the best military aircraft in the world. It follows that this UCAV will likely be a very capable platform.
What does this mean for the US military and the rest of the world?
For many countries, it is an opportunity to buy UCAV technology that was previously unavailable to them. Once the Skat is in production, you can bet they will be popping up all over the world in the many countries Russia sells arms too. And that is a long list.
Obviously there is the risk of terrorism with UCAVs into buildings. But the more likely scenario comes from too many UCAVs in the sky and countries willing to push the limits in their use. In 2001, a Chinese fighter pilot lost his life when he collided with an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft in-flight. The US plane made a remarkable recovery and the entire crew survived by landing in China. This was an accident caused by an overly aggressive fighter pilot who didn’t know the limits of his aircraft and misjudged how close he could fly to the EP-3. No pilot would intentionally crash into another plane (in peace time).
But what happens when the pilot is a hundred miles away on the ground? With no risk to himself, there is less impetus to stand off from other planes. Whether it is an act of coercion or an intercept to gain intelligence, there could be a serious increase in mid-air collisions as UCAVs become a standard item in many inventories. When a UCAV gets too aggressive with a piloted aircraft, it seems justifiable to shoot it down. After all, no lives are lost. But to do so could also be an act of war. Tricky.
Obviously, UCAVs are here to stay and they are becoming part of the security landscape we live in. But with Russia jumping in the game, the timetable is moving up. The US will need a clear strategy to deal with UCAVs and consider developing an international legal framework before a crisis develops. America doesn’t get have the only UCAVs on the block anymore.