25 November 2021


Benjamin F. Schumacher, Major, USAF

Over the last two decades, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have become an essential component of military airpower in modern “small wars” such as Counterterrorism (CT) and Counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.1 Joint Publication 3-30, Command and Control of Joint Air Operations, defines UAS as a “system whose components include the necessary equipment, network, and personnel to control an unmanned aircraft.”2 The more complex UAS require more integration between functions, services, and organizations to operate effectively.

During the war in Afghanistan, almost all UAS operations were conducted by foreign coalition partners rather than the Afghan Air Force (AAF) or Afghan National Army (ANA). The coalition primarily used complex large frame (Category 4 or 5) UAS such as Predators and Global Hawks. UAS are divided into five categories of size and complexity (Figure 1).3 Although advanced US and allied air forces prefer large UAS, small UAS (sUAS) systems (Categories 1 to 3) have become more prevalent among ground forces and in less-developed countries. Developing countries prefer sUAS for their relative simplicity which makes them easier to train, operate without an airfield, and transport between locations. They are also significantly less expensive than a manned aircraft alternative (usually less than one percent of the unit cost). Recent cases, such as the implementation of the ScanEagle UAS program with the ANA, have demonstrated that effective and independent use of a UAS by Afghan forces is not just a possibility, but already a reality.

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