Harpia Publishing has long been noted for their steady stream of high-quality softcovers which typically feature modern aviation topics with rich illustration. With Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles – Current Types, Ordnance and Operations by Dan Gettinger (ISBN: 978-1-950394-05-0) they are however breaking new terrain. As volume 1 in their Strategic Handbook Series, it sports not only a different cover design, but is also a hardback. At the time of writing I am not aware of any other planned volumes in the series, but time will tell. One thing that does remain, however, is the significant number of colour photographs spread throughout the book.
Unmanned combat aerial vehicles are not a new concept – depending on you choice of definition, a case can be made for them stretching back at least to WWII – but it is safe to say that the Global War on Terror was what really brought the concept to life. Following that, UCAVs and loitering munitions have been a staple of many conflicts, with the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war providing an important window into just how devastating they might be if left uncountered.
The book kicks off with a chapter labelled “Definitions and Analysis”. This does what it says on the lid, defining key terminology used such as the classes of aircraft or munition or what is operational service. You might not agree with all classes, but they provide a useful frame of reference and are used consistently throughout the book. After this it looks at current trends in the field. This all takes place in a dozen pages. The final chapter is “Theatres”, which gives an overview of operations with loitering munitions and UCAVs grouped according to the theatre of operations, and this one stretches to 19 pages. The 132 pages in between these two is called “Manufacturers”, and goes through country for country more or less every project that has reached mock-up stage or even somewhat convincing renders. Besides the obvious big players in the game, this means that there’s quite a few rarities presented (familiar with Georgia’s TAM T-31? I wasn’t).
This chapter is obviously the main event, so let’s make one thing clear – the book is a reference work rather than something you sit down a read cover to cover. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but it is something that isn’t immediately obvious going by the cover. With the war in Ukraine and numerous other conflicts large and small seeing ever increased usage of these kinds of systems, the book fits with Harpia’s eerie tendency to publish new titles just before they get rocketed to the top of “current events”-pile. Unmanned systems have never been mine primary focus, and I will readily admit that with the tempo new systems appear if not over the Ukrainian battlefield then at least in the discussions surrounding it, having a handy reference guide is nice. On the flip side, if you are looking for books about the history of the systems and the doctrines behind their use, this isn’t the book for you. Neither is it if you are looking for detailed information on the primary systems in use – the sheer number of systems presented means that any single one will have the basic facts, but not much more. The same can be said for the Theatres-section, which certainly held new information for me – in particular about the less-publicised African conflicts which have seen UCAVs used – but which added little to my understanding of the more well-known conflicts which have featured heavily in other writings.
All in all, the book certainly fills a niche and will likely continue to be the primary reference book on the topic for quite a while. The step from softcover to hardcover is a nice touch, and clearly sets it aside from Harpia’s other offerings. Highly recommended – with the caveats noted above that if you aren’t looking for a reference work, this one isn’t for you.
The book was received for review free of charge from Harpia Publishing.