Flying Dirty: Unmanned Casualty Evacuation on the Contaminated Battlefield

In recent years, militaries have prioritized the adoption of unmanned solutions to outsource the “most tedious, dirtiest, and most dangerous” tasks on the battlefield. The Secretary of the Air Force recently stressed the need for expendable “unmanned” aircraft to fight in a future conflict between great powers, but mostly focused on fighter jets. Leaders should pay more attention to one of the military’s most dangerous and dirtiest missions: the evacuation of wounded and dead soldiers from a battlefield where chemical or biological weapons have been used.

The aviation industry is aiming to launch electric air taxis within the next decade, targeting both remote-controlled and fully autonomous passenger flights. If adopted by the military, these platforms could offset the critical reliance on conventional manned aircraft and remove warfighters from one of the highest risk missions on the battlefield, while allowing the force to fight and win in the face of chemical and biological weapons .

These weapons are not just novel tools for assassination. They could still be used on the battlefield, maybe even soon in Ukraine. Chemical and biological weapons remain attractive to a cornered enemy. For example, analysts warn of a possible use of chemical weapons by North Korea at the beginning of the conflict on the peninsula. One expert worries that China’s military training for use in contaminated environments may indicate that “Chinese political and military leaders see operational utility for these weapons on modern battlefields.”

The problem

The use of chemical and biological weapons reduces combat effectiveness by contaminating both soldiers and equipment. America’s commitments to rescuing its troops from a filthy environment will quickly exhaust the personnel and aircraft available to sustain the broader fight. This creates a dilemma that commanders are already familiar with: risking valuable resources to save a wounded warfighter. While some may argue that safeguards and decontamination mitigate risk, they may be overly optimistic. Multi-service publications recognize the continued risk of using aircraft after decontamination efforts that fail to fully eliminate residual hazards to future crews.

As for aircrew, current protection measures sacrifice combat effectiveness in favor of adequate protection against chemical and biological threats. Crew endurance, vision, dexterity and communications are negatively impacted by the necessary protective equipment required to operate in this environment. A hundred years after gas masks became widespread, the American military continues to make incremental improvements but has failed to introduce disruptive options to completely remove aircrew. Manned aircraft may have replaced the gas-mask-wearing pack mules of World War I, but technology will not eliminate the risk until the aviators are removed from the filthy battlefield.

Operational vulnerabilities create opportunities for adversaries to use these weapons as a strategic deterrent to American involvement. A force heavily affected by chemical and biological threats in all aspects of warfare is less capable of fighting and winning. This vulnerability forms the counter-argument to chemical or biological warfare in conflict and their own competitive deterrence.

An unmanned solution

The military adoption of unmanned aerial vehicles can fundamentally change the way the combined force mitigates operational risk. While unmanned aircraft are not new, the urban air mobility market offers a variety of new capabilities and options. To be relevant in this dirty work, the military should only look to aircraft that are remotely piloted or fully autonomous, expendable (comparable to current aircraft), and capable of quickly moving casualties from the contaminated environment to manned platforms bring to.

Urban Air Mobility aircraft are the convergence of several key technologies, each with the potential to increase performance and reduce costs over time. The global trend towards electric vehicles will continue to push the boundaries of performance in terms of range, speed, payload and endurance. The parallel advances in autonomy are on their own uptrend. By leveraging commercial competition, the military has an opportunity to take on well-resourced R&D rather than committing to costly and classically slow military-specific solutions.

Speaking of costs: In addition to power conservation, there are also financial advantages. In order to be competitive in the commercial market, leading companies are aiming for future costs that match current ridesharing. One estimate puts aircraft at about $700 per hour of operation, versus about $5000 for an Army Black Hawk or over $25,000 for an Air Force Osprey. The biggest savings will not be financial, but in reducing risk by eliminating the crew altogether. It’s up to commanders to decide whether it’s worth taking the risk of unmanned casualty evacuation in exchange for a multimillion-dollar helicopter and a priceless crew whose performance in this environment is already questionable.

The US military has an established relationship with the domestic urban air mobility market, but the current infrastructure is positioned only as an innovation incubator. Special Operations Command is well positioned as a potential adopter due to its dedicated procurement agencies and charter to lead the Department of Defense’s mission to counter weapons of mass destruction. A more modern approach would be for task force commanders specifically positioned to counter these threats to commission casualty evacuation as another form of drone-as-a-service.


Drones are not new, and neither is the call for unmanned evacuation of the injured. If both the skills and requirements are so obvious, what prevents their use on the battlefield? In 2014, Paul Scharre named the biggest problem: politics. At the time, medical experts feared that unmanned vehicles posed a greater risk to the patient than a human pilot. Although legitimate concerns remain, new aircraft designed to transport civilian families without a pilot on board will be safe enough for urgent casualty movement. To be honest, if a human pilot is considered a safety standard, one has to consider the impaired abilities of pilots flying in gas masks. The unmanned solution may simply be the safer ride.

In addition to the concerns about unmanned aircraft, Scharre highlighted the challenge of overcoming the well-intentioned hurdles of medical ethics. Medical evacuation standards (a step above casualty evacuation using dedicated medical aircraft with onboard supplies) require continuous patient care that cannot yet be met by the capabilities of autonomous or remotely operated in-flight medicine. Numerous military initiatives to develop future platforms that meet this standard should rightly continue, but unfortunately they will likely remain constrained by high standards of care.

The temporary limitation to casualty evacuation gives commanders an unmanned platform to transport “injured cargo” who should be excluded from medical evacuation standards. This provides commanders with the ability to expedite patient movement, confine contamination to only the unmanned aircraft, and move patients away from the threat environment for treatment. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to evacuate casualties can now close a current vulnerability while giving medical experts time to integrate and certify unmanned medical capabilities in 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 affect both conflict and competition. The commercial ecosystem is driven by global competition and strengthened by rapidly improving technology trends. The military can be a “fast follower” in this adoption race, using existing and planned commercial capabilities to improve combat effectiveness in the most dangerous and dirtiest of missions.

The technology reduces tactical risk by providing commanders with an unmanned alternative that avoids exposing priceless aircrew and expensive aircraft to contamination or combat losses. The ability to evacuate casualties unmanned alone will not deter the use of chemical or biological weapons on the battlefield. Adoption of this technology, however, may reduce the attractiveness of chemical and biological weapons by increasing America’s critical reliance on manned air forces.

If the US military truly wants to compete on a contaminated battlefield, introducing an unmanned solution to the dirtiest task is the right place to start. The technological and ethical hurdles of unmanned casualty evacuation will remain challenging, but sticking to the status quo reveals only one critical vulnerability. Instead, the military can disruptively change the way America wins in a dirty war that hopefully never comes.

Mike Hicks is a Navy explosives disposal officer with an operational and academic focus on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. John Stodley is an Air Force special missions aviator and CV-22 flight engineer. They are students in the Applied Design for Innovation program in the Department of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.

The views expressed in this article are solely the views of the authors. They do not reflect the official position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Department of Defense, or any other entity within the United States Government, and the authors are not authorized to publish any official position of such entity.

Image: Tech. Sergeant Christine Jones Flying Dirty: Unmanned Casualty Evacuation on the Contaminated Battlefield

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