The Utility of Unmanned Combat Air Systems Gaining Control of the Air by 2040

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The era of manned flight is not yet over, and the likelihood of its demise is not imminent. Unmanned Aircraft Systems are, however, currently assuming roles in air power that, hitherto, have been undertaken by manned aircraft. In future warfare, will it be possible for Unmanned Combat Air Systems, the next stage in Unmanned Aircraft System evolution, to undertake the tasks and accept most of the risks that until now have been the lot of military aviators? The aim of this thesis is to determine where threats to a US led alliance in 2040 are likely to come from, and whether Unmanned Combat Air Systems will be effective in undertaking all the counter-air missions that are required of a nation’s armed forces. Control of the air is the foundation for all conventional military operations against an adversary with an air defence capability. If Unmanned Combat Air Systems cannot control the airspace in which they operate, and unless control can be gained by other than manned systems, then manned fighter aircraft will be required to achieve this task. This would be perverse, largely negating the purpose of utilising Unmanned Combat Air Systems. The effect that political, legal and ethical issues of using Unmanned Combat Air Systems might have upon decision makers cannot be underestimated, particularly in terms of their willingness to deploy such systems at little, if any, risk to their own military personnel. There is currently a lack of cohesion and clear thought on the future utility of Unmanned Combat Air Systems in the counter-air role, particularly within the UK, which requires cogent and informed input. This research examines these issues and will allow value to be added to the procurement decision process, and help inform future policy over the manned versus unmanned aircraft debate. Ultimately, this thesis advocates that Unmanned Combat Air Systems, capable of gaining control of the air, have the potential to offer a revolution in the way warfare will be conducted in the 21st Century.
Date of Award2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorChristina Goulter (Supervisor) & Philip Sabin (Supervisor)

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