Putting the Advantage of Mass Back into Airpower: RPA Utility Beyond the COIN Fight

By Mark Nexon

“We now face, at once, a persistent war against terrorist enemies and a new era of great power competition.” — Senator John McCain, Restoring American Power, 2016

Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) have been a vital part of America’s approach to its ongoing counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations. However, as the nation faces an emerging security landscape characterized by increased state competition as well as perpetual unconventional conflict, a fresh look at what RPAs can provide is necessary. In examining their future potential utility, it becomes clear that RPAs offer political and uniformed leaders more than persistence and lethality in uncontested environments. While RPAs continue to prove their effectiveness in prosecution of counter-terror and counter-insurgency targets, RPAs employed in higher-end contested environments can both increase the lethality of friendly manned platforms and overwhelm those of the enemy. Through their ability to achieve cost-effective mass, RPAs provide multi-domain utility across the spectrum of conflict, enabling American airpower to bridge the divide between current capabilities and national security demands.

Mass for Air

For an Air Force that has trended toward lower numbers of exquisite weapons systems, RPAs can offer the new possibility of mass to Air Component Commanders. Either employed as munitions delivery platforms cued by low-observable stealth and fighter aircraft, or in concert with them to form an Air Defense-overwhelming swarm, RPAs can increase the survivability and combat power of manned aircraft formations. Reducing the cost of survivable weapons systems relative to the defenses they must defeat is critical to the sustainability of a bifurcated future force equipped to both decisively win major combat operations and remain perpetually engaged in unconventional conflicts.

Mass for Land

Similarly, RPAs can also provide land force commanders with cross-domain mass, achieving economy of force necessary in essential—but resource intensive—tasks such as wide area security. They can deliver persistent lethal presence and situational awareness for flank and rear security at a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft or ground force units. In uncontested environments, this is useful in many activities, to include identifying and separating insurgent forces from non-hostile local forces, a critical counter-insurgency task described in John Nagl’s “Indirect Approach.”

Further, in contested, Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS)-restricted environments, RPAs can provide overhead ISR, localized command/control/communications, and EMS dominance directly for tactical echelons. They can act as multi-purpose force multipliers, increasing the sustainability of and enabling operations where large forces are fiscally or politically unpalatable. Moreover, long-duration capable RPAs employed with cueing and ground-capable interdiction platforms (manned or otherwise) can deny the enemy’s ability to mass, allowing Land Component Commanders to achieve localized combat power overmatch against adversaries.

Cost-Effective Mass = Cost-Effective Attrition Warfare

Robert Pape’s assertion that “wars of attrition are economic wars” remains sound for both irregular and conventional conflict and is a point that is increasingly salient during times of austerity. In irregular conflicts, outcomes are not decided by industrial capacity. Instead, the relative cost in terms of blood and treasure—as well as a nation’s ability to both endure and deliver in terms of each—is what counts. In a potential paradigm shift, RPAs provide an avenue for the US to reverse strategic cost curve, risk-to-life, and fire-power, negating advantages exploited by irregular forces over conventional forces in long-term, limited conflicts. RPAs can serve as cheaper weapon-delivery vehicles for attrition-oriented coercion campaigns against resilient irregular adversaries. This would bridge the ends-means gap that rendered the Vietnam War’s major air campaigns ineffective, and the gaps between military capabilities and civil support requirements that surfaced following the initial phases of Operations ENDURING and IRAQI FREEDOM.

In more conventional conflicts, RPAs can offer cost advantage in countering large formations of enemy aircraft, or in absorbing sufficient quantities of surface-to-air missiles to render an air defense system ineffective (in both operational and economic terms). Employing RPAs poses far less financial risk to a Commander-in-Chief, the Congress, and senior military leaders—particularly when compared to the number of manned long-range strategic bombers or fighter aircraft (and the associated tanker support) to produce the same strategic effect.

Here, it is also worth considering how the ability to wage a war of attrition at lower cost might have deterrent value. Neither the North Vietnamese in the 1960’s and 1970’s, nor the Mujahadeen in 1980’s Afghanistan, were deterred by the scale of the respective American and Soviet economies. Both saw the possibility of success with an acknowledged industrial disadvantage by exploiting the large differential in cost to continue fighting, attriting their adversaries into reluctant acceptance of their desired strategic end-states. Teamed lower-cost RPAs, cued by the necessary numbers of manned aircraft, can reverse the disadvantages of attrition-driven campaigns by lowering attrition’s cost. As RPA capabilities improve, technologically and industrially capable nation-states may be able to utilize advanced unmanned aircraft to deter conventional or unconventional adversaries and prosecute operations in support of broader national objectives with a more limited financial risk.


The USAF and broader DOD must seriously examine the potential role for RPAs beyond the permissive battle-spaces they currently excel in. They have far more to offer than surveillance and precision strikes against undefended, soft targets. Instead, RPA utility should be considered across the spectrum of conflict, particularly when teamed with manned platforms. The sum of efficiencies and opportunities offered by teamed RPAs are likely to be useful as a central component to the 3rd Offset that military decision makers seek. Whether in permissive or contested battlespaces, RPAs are an essential component to a future agile and effective force structure.

Major Mark “Dragon” Nexon is an Evaluator Pilot with over 3000 hours in the KC-135 and C-130. He holds a BS from the US Air Force Academy and an MBA from Gonzaga University’s Jepson School of Business. Mark is currently a student Air Command and Staff College’s Multi-Domain Operations Strategist program and is a Senior Editor for Over the Horizon.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.


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