Report on Current, Future Pentagon Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Programs

April 20, 2022 11:47 AM

The following is the April 13, 2022 Congressional Research Service report, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Current and Potential Programs

From the report

Since the dawn of military aviation, the U.S. military has been interested in remotely piloted aircraft. Present-day unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) typically consist of an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) paired with a ground control station. UAS have become ubiquitous in U.S. military operations since the 1990s with the introduction of the MQ-1 Predator.

The U.S. military currently employs several different large UAS, including:

  • the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle,
  • the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper,
  • the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray,
  • the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk,
  • the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, and
  • the Air Force’s RQ-170 Sentinel.

In addition, several other reported programs are either in development or currently undergoing experimentation. These programs include the Air Force’s B-21 Raider and the Air Force’s RQ-180.

As Congress performs its oversight and authorization functions, it may consider several potential issues associated with UAS programs, including:

  • the cost of manned versus unmanned aircraft,
  • a lack of acknowledged follow-on programs of record,
  • the management of UAS acquisitions across the Department of Defense,
  • the interoperation of UAS with existing force structure, and
  • export controls of UAS abroad.

In the U.S. military, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) are most often called unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs), which are described as either a single air vehicle (with associated surveillance sensors) or a UAV system (UAS), which typically consists of an air vehicle paired with a ground control station (where the pilot actually sits) and support equipment. Although UAS are commonly operated as one aircraft paired with one ground system, the Department of Defense (DOD) often procures multiple aircraft with one ground control station. When combined with ground control stations and communication data links, UAVs form unmanned aircraft systems or UAS.

The Department of Defense (DOD) defines UAVs, and, by extension, UAS as powered aircraft that

  • do not carry a human operator,
  • use aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift,
  • can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely,
  • can be expendable or recoverable, and
  • can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.2

Ballistic or semiballistic vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles are not considered UASs under the DOD definition.
UAS roles and missions have evolved over time, from collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to performing air-to-ground attack missions. Further, some analysts predict future roles for UAS, such as air-to-air combat and combat search and rescue. However, a detailed discussion of future concepts and missions for UAS are outside the scope of this report.

Download the document here.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox