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The Air Force is looking into disposable drones to be 'unmanned wingman'

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. --- After the "explosive" increase in the capabilities of unmanned aerial systems over the last 15 years, the challenges for the future are to develop the ability to avoid being shot down and to reduce the cost of operating and processing the data coming from what the Air Force calls "remotely piloted aircraft," a panel of industry and Pentagon officials said Sept. 20.


The RPAs have proven their value for collecting intelligence and conducting precision strikes in the 15 years of constant combat since 9/11. But that all has happened in a permissive environment against adversaries that have no air forces or even integrated air defenses, the officials said during a presentation at the Air Force Association's Air, Space, Cyber conference.

Airman 1st Class Steven and Airman 1st Class Taylor prepare an MQ-9 Reaper for flight during Combat Hammer May 15, 2014, at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. Fighter, bomber and remotely piloted aircraft units around the Air Force are evaluated four times a year and provided weapons, airspace and targets from Hill AFB, Utah, or Eglin AFB, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. N.B.)

Although the experts agreed that developing the ability to operate RPAs against high-tech adversaries in the future was crucial, none offered any proposals on how to do that. The Air Force already has some unmanned aircraft with stealth capabilities that allow them to reduce detection by enemy radars. And the Navy is planning to field a carrier-based UAS that will function primarily as an airborne tanker but also will have ISR capabilities.

Kenneth Callicutt, director of Capabilities and Resources at the U.S. Strategic Command, noted that other sensor platforms, such as the E-3 AWACs and E-8 JSTARS, also would be at risk in a future high-end conflict. So the issue would be how to get the sensors forward, he said.

Callicutt suggested that the solution could be the "unmanned wingman," a low-cost RPA that could be operated by a manned aircraft into high-risk conditions.

James Gear, an advanced systems official with L3 communications, suggested one option could be deciding between the current reusable aircraft or expendable platforms.

"There are times when you don't want to be burdened to recover that system," he said.

But others raised the issue of justifying throw away sensor platforms in the current tight budget situation.

Tom Clancy, chief technology officer with Aurora Flight Science Corp, noted that with the great increase in capabilities that RPAs give the warfighters, the way they evolved led to a situation "where it takes more people to operate them than manned aircraft."

Looking forward, Clancy said, the question is, "how can we deliver on lower cost, deliver more capability at lower cost? That leads to autonomous systems. … As a community, we need to drive to that."

Christopher Pehrson, a strategic development director at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, offered two other options to cut the cost of using RPAs to collect intelligence. One, he said, would be to allow a ground commander on the scene to control the aircraft, rather than controllers at a remote location. He also suggested it would be cheaper to have a person who knows the region and the culture of the adversary to handle the ISR data, rather than trying to develop automated systems to process it.

Callicutt raised two other issues created by the proliferation of RPAs collecting vast amounts of data – how to get that data to those who need it and the limited amount available electromagnetic "bandwidth."

He noted that Link 16, currently the best secure system of transmitting data between military systems, was created in 1964.

"I submit it's time to start thinking about the next battle network," and cited the concept of the "combat cloud" that senior Air Force officials have proposed. That would be a secure version of the cloud currently used by individuals and corporations to store their computer files.

"It's no secret, we need better communications, like the combat cloud," Callicutt said.