Air Force turns its attention to small UAS platforms

The proliferation of small systems present a threat, but also an opportunity, the service says in a recently released 20-year plan for small UAS.

As the military works through the complicated current security environment, described by the Director of National Intelligence as the most “diverse array of challenges and crises around the world” in 50 years, adapting to new technologies and methodologies will be imperative in maintaining both technological and military superiority. The military-industrial complex has leveraged, and in some cases over-relied on, unmanned aerial technologies for nearly the past two decades. 

While platforms with dual strike and persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper have earned appreciation from commanders and civilian leaders alike in the counterterrorism realm, there is concern that they could be nullified by more technologically superior adversaries. While the Predator and Reaper will remain, the Air Force is also paying attention to the small UAS market, recently releasing its Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan for 2016-2036 to take advantage of this boom and fill in capability gaps. 

The Air Force maintains that it intends to deliver affordable and integrated SUAS within several attributes that include;

  • Exponential Force Multiplier: Cross-domain integration across mission sets to augment and/or fill requirement shortfalls.
  • Easily Integrated Asset: Deployable by a variety of means, providing flexibility, reach, penetration, and integration with joint force missions.
  • Cost Savings Enabler: Affordability in development, procurement and employment providing cost-effective capabilities with larger aircraft quantities.
  • Partnership Builder: Facilitates teaming between the joint force, interagency, coalition partners, academia, and industry to drive innovation and efficient use of research and development (R&D) investments

The initial objective of the plan is to “synchronize nascent efforts across a diverse set of stakeholders within the Air Force. In the near-term (within the [future years defense program]), the Air Force must apply a substantial focus towards SUAS [research and development],” the plan said. 

“The Small UAS Flight Plan outlines a vision and strategy for the continued development, operation and sustainment of SUAS over the next 20 years,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Integrating SUAS into the Air Force’s ISR portfolio enables a more agile force that will help meet future warfighter demands in both permissive and highly contested environments.”

The plan addresses Group 1 to Group 3, aircraft, which includes everything from micro-drones to ones weighing up to 1,300 pounds, such as the RQ-7B Shadow.

Both conventional and special operations forces utilize these SUAS platforms. The document highlighted some of the operational needs the Air Force Special Operations Command wants from SUAS, which include beyond-line-of-sight tactical ISR and targeting, kinetic low-collateral damage engagement of time-sensitive targets, rapid reaction expeditionary persistent ISR, near-real-time networked collaborative information and standoff, adverse-weather-capable, multiple-target-track/kill from AFSOC aircraft. 

Several problems will emerge, however, with the proliferation and large scale integration of these systems, both in terms of overburdening current systems and operators and challenges associated with operating them effectively. For example, the Air Force notes that it already collects more information than it can analyze and with the introduction of smaller assets that will serve an ISR function, it will have to develop better processing, exploitation and dissemination procedures. The force will also have to deal with electromagnetic spectrum and bandwidth management issues, since those resources are finite. Additionally, size, weight and power restrictions will plague these systems in terms of equipping them with certain sensors for particular mission sets or even potential weaponization.     

Beyond the initial timeframe, the Air Force wants to shift the focus toward increasing the capability of “Airmen-Autonomy” teaming. “This development should harness the technical capabilities outlined in this Flight Plan while maintaining a central theme of enhancing, not replacing, the Airmen within the system,” the flight plan said. 

“There is so much more that can be done with SUAS,” said Col. Brandon Baker, the director of RPA capabilities. “SUAS will enable new operational concepts like teaming, swarming and loyal wingman, which allow for a single operator to control large numbers of platforms.”

The continued development of manned-unmanned teaming will improve ISR core competencies in anti-access/area denial environments and contribute to force protection of key assets as well as increase deterrence. The document lists several capabilities manned-unmanned teaming provides:

  • defeating integrated air defense systems from greater standoff distances at acceptable attrition rates.
  • expanding the capability for massed precision strike.
  • enabling movement and maneuver for projecting strategic effects.
  • establishing and sustaining the assured lines of communications while expanding electromagnetic control.
  • protecting austere locations with operational and strategic implications.

The plan also drew an important distinction between SUAS and guided munitions, or expendable assets. “In general, the decision to classify expendable SUAS as a munition has merit because their acquisition and training strategies closely align. However, there are limitations to a guided munition classification for systems that are operated more like a SUAS,” the report said. “For example, the precision and expertise needed to conduct strike and coordination operations requires increased training and standards development not typically seen with guided munitions.” 

Some have discussed that SUAS can be used as expendable assets in expeditionary missions or to protect higher value assets. According to Peter Singer, senior fellow and strategist at the New America Foundation, UAS will be used to destroy air defenses in concert with larger air assets. “It might be…it’s carrying the weapons systems itself – even the one that’s in the air to air world, it is going to have to be armed unless you want it to be unable to defend itself and therefore putting the human pilots that depend on it to get back to the carrier at risk. That’s why we armed the manned tankers, that’s why we will arm the unmanned tankers,” he said during a panel at the annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition May 17. 

The other use in this vein he highlighted is as an expendable point “man” that can take fire.  The Israelis used UAS against Syrian air defenses in the 1980s to force the air defense system to turn on its missiles, radars, reveal itself and waste missiles shooting down these disposable systems, he said, adding the Israelis wanted the unmanned systems to be shot down.    

Three highly referenced concepts within this larger framework of manned-unmanned teaming include swarming – a networked mass of SUAS that are universally aware of their surroundings. Unlike swarming autonomous devices, teaming devices work with a manned or another unmanned system, retaining some level of in-the-loop control.

Another emerging concept is air-launched SUAS that are delivered from a larger aircraft in-flight.  “AL-SUAS can increase the ISR effectiveness of manned and remotely piloted aircraft by extending the range of host-platforms’ capability via off-board sensors. These off-board sensors can provide ISR at stand-off ranges, go below the weather, and/or follow multiple diverging targets,” the flight plan said. “AL-SUAS can also extend lethal strike capability of manned and remotely piloted aircraft with precision and low collateral damage … Finally, AL-SUAS provide increased resilience to ground teams. When working with a “stack” of aircraft, AL-SUAS can be launched and “shared” with different users for organic ISR or strike missions. This concept could reduce the weight that a ground user must carry. The expendable or optionally recoverable nature of AL-SUAS does not add unnecessary complexity to missions.”

“[Remotely piloted aircraft] have been foundational to the growth of the Air Force’s globally integrated ISR enterprise, but as operating environments become more complex, budgets plateau, and technology proliferation neutralizes our asymmetric advantage, we must address future demands with a new way of thinking,” Baker said. “SUAS offer a way to provide more capability and capacity to the warfighter at equal or lower operational cost.”

After the next decade or so, SUAS and UAS capabilities should meet several C4ISR roles.  “Beyond ISR, Airmen will find themselves fully integrated while employing multi-role SUAS across the range of Air Force operations. By this point, ‘plug and play’ modularity, scalable autonomy, and systems based on open system architectures will be common place,” the plan said.  “When looking towards this future, one must remember that the pace of SUAS technological advancement is such that policy, guidance, and decisions set in motion today will directly affect combat capability 20 years from now. The costs of delaying this development are extended procurement timelines, increased costs, or at worst, increased combat risk within operating domains where asymmetric advantage is quickly fleeting.”