Flying Dirty: Unmanned Casualty Evacuation on the Contaminated Battlefield
In recent years, militaries have prioritized adoption of unmanned solutions to offload the most “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks on the battlefield. The secretary of the Air Force recently highlighted the need for expendable “uncrewed” aircraft to fight in a future great-power conflict, but focused largely on combat aircraft. Leaders should pay closer attention to one of the military’s most dangerous and dirty missions: evacuating wounded and dead servicemembers from a battlefield where chemical or biological weapons have been used.
The aviation industry aims to field electric flying taxis within the next decade, targeting both remotely piloted and eventually fully autonomous passenger flight. If adopted by the military, these platforms could offset a critical reliance on conventional manned aircraft, removing warfighters from one of the highest risk missions on the battlefield while enabling the force to fight and win in the face of chemical and biological weapons.
These weapons are not just novel tools for assassination. They may still be used on the battlefield, perhaps even soon in Ukraine. Chemical and biological weapons remain attractive for a cornered foe. For example, analysts warn of potential North Korean chemical warfare use at the onset of conflict on the peninsula. One expert fears that China’s military training to operate in contaminated environments may indicate that “Chinese political and military leaders see operational utility for these weapons on modern battlefields.”
The use of chemical and biological weapons diminishes combat power by contaminating both warfighters and equipment. America’s commitments to save its troops from a dirty environment will rapidly deplete the personnel and aircraft available to sustain the broader fight. This creates a dilemma that commanders will already be familiar with: risking valuable resources to save a wounded warfighter. Though some may argue protective measures and decontamination mitigate risks, they may be overly optimistic. Multi-service publications acknowledge the continued risk of using aircraft after decontamination efforts, which cannot completely eliminate residual hazards to future crews.
As for the aircrew, current protective measures sacrifice combat effectiveness for adequate protection against chemical and biological threats. Crew endurance, visibility, dexterity, and communication are negatively impacted by the necessary protective equipment required to operate in this environment. A hundred years after gas masks were widely fielded, the American military continues to make incremental improvements but has failed to introduce disruptive options to remove aircrews altogether. Manned aircraft may have replaced the gas mask-wearing pack mules of World War I, but technology will not eliminate the risk until aviators are removed from dirty battlefield.
Operational vulnerabilities create opportunities for adversaries to leverage these weapons as strategic deterrents to American involvement. A force that is widely impacted, in all aspects of warfighting, by chemical and biological threats is less capable of fighting and winning. This vulnerability builds the adversarial case for chemical or biological warfare in conflict and their own deterrent posture in competition.
An Unmanned Solution
Military adoption of unmanned aircraft can fundamentally change how the joint force mitigates operational risk. While unmanned aircraft are not new, the urban air mobility market offers a diversity of new capabilities and options. For relevance in this dirty job, the military should look only towards the aircraft that are remotely piloted or fully autonomous, expendable (comparable to current aircraft), and capable of rapidly ferrying casualties out of the contaminated environment for transfer to manned platforms.
Urban air mobility aircraft are at the convergence of several key technologies, all of which have the potential to increase in performance and decrease in cost over time. The global trend towards electric vehicles will continue to push the performance envelope in terms of range, speed, payload, and endurance. The parallel advances in autonomy are on their own upward trajectory. By leveraging commercial competition, the military has an opportunity to adopt well-resourced research and development rather than commit to costly and classically slow military-specific solutions.
Speaking of costs, there will be financial benefits in addition to force preservation. To be competitive in the commercial market, leaders are targeting future costs on par with current ride-share applications. One estimate projects aircraft to run around $700 per operating hour versus approximately $5000 for an Army Black Hawk or over $25,000 for an Air Force Osprey. The biggest savings will not be financial but in mitigating risk by removing the aircrew altogether. It will be up to commanders to decide if incurring the risks of unmanned casualty evacuation is worth preserving a multi-million-dollar helicopter and priceless aircrew whose performance in this environment is already questionable.
The U.S. military has an established relationship with the domestic urban air mobility market, but the current infrastructure is postured only as an innovation incubator. Special Operations Command is well positioned as a potential adopter due to its special acquisition authorities and its charter to lead the Department of Defense’s mission to counter weapons of mass destruction. A more modern approach would be for operational commanders specifically postured against these threats to contract out casualty evacuation as another form of drones as a service.
Drones aren’t new, and neither is the call for unmanned casualty evacuation. If both the capabilities and demands are so obvious, what’s barred their use on the battlefield? In 2014, Paul Scharre called out the biggest problem: policy. At the time, medical experts were concerned that unmanned vehicles incurred more risk to the patient than a human pilot. Though still a valid concern, emerging aircraft designed to fly civilian families without an onboard pilot will be safe enough for an urgent casualty movement. To be blunt, if a human pilot is considered the standard for safety, one must consider the impaired abilities of pilots flying in gas masks. The unmanned solution may just be the safer ride.
In addition to the concerns of unmanned aircraft, Scharre highlighted the challenges of overcoming the well-intentioned hurdles of medical ethics. Standards for medical evacuation (a level above casualty evacuation that uses dedicated medical aircraft with onboard care) require continuous treatment of patients that cannot yet be met by the capabilities of autonomous or remote medicine in flight. Numerous military initiatives to develop future platforms to meet this standard should rightfully continue, but unfortunately, they will likely remain constrained by high standards of care.
By limiting the scope to casualty evacuation for now, commanders will have an unmanned platform to move “casualties as cargo” that should be precluded from the standards of medical evacuation. This provides commanders an option to expedite patient movement, limit contamination to only the unmanned aircraft, and transfer patients to treatment outside of the threat environment. Fielding unmanned casualty evacuation aircraft now can fill a current vulnerability while leaving medical experts time to integrate and certify unmanned medical capabilities into future aircraft.
Down and Dirty on the Contaminated Battlefield
The urban air mobility market offers an unmanned solution to the challenge of sustaining combat on the contaminated battlefield. The operational requirement is valid, the threats are explicitly stated, and operational improvements will affect both conflict and competition. The commercial ecosystem is driven by global competition and bolstered by rapidly improving technology trends. The military can be a “fast follower” in this adoption race, by leveraging existing and projected commercial capabilities to enhance combat effectiveness in the most dangerous and dirty of missions.
The technology reduces tactical risk by providing commanders an unmanned alternative that avoids committing priceless aircrews and high-dollar aircraft to contamination or combat loss. The capability for unmanned casualty evacuation alone is not going to deter the use of chemical or biological weapons on the battlefield. However, the adoption of this technology can reduce the attractiveness of chemical and biological weapons by shoring up America’s critical reliance on manned airpower.
If the U.S. military truly wants to prevail on a contaminated battlefield, adopting an unmanned solution to the dirtiest job is the place to start. The technological and ethical hurdles of unmanned casualty evacuation will remain challenging, but sticking with the status quo only showcases a critical vulnerability. Instead, the military can disruptively alter the way America wins in a dirty war that hopefully never comes.
Mike Hicks is a Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer with an operational and academic focus on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. John Stoodley is an Air Force special missions aviator and CV-22 flight engineer. They are students in the Applied Design for Innovation program in the Naval Postgraduate School’s Department of Defense Analysis.
The views expressed in this article are the views of the authors alone. They do not reflect the official position of the Naval Postgraduate School, the Department of Defense, or any other entity within the U.S. government and the authors are not authorized to provide any official position of these entities.
Image: Tech. Sgt. Christine Jones