Unamanned Systems

Despite advanced threats, DOD still banking on drones

Unmanned aerial systems have thrived in the relatively permissive spectrum environments of the Middle East and south Asia in the counterterrorism fight of the last decade and a half. However, as the military begins to shift its focus to more advanced adversaries – those with air defense systems that could render slow-moving drones ineffective as well as mount cyber and electronic capabilities that can degrade the networks that these aircraft rely upon – unmanned systems will still have an important, albeit somewhat different, role to play.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, testifying in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, laid out the continued investments being made in these revolutionary technologies even as the threat landscape is changing. “[I]nvestments that are most relevant to deterring Russia include new unmanned systems,” Carter said in prepared remarks.

Other recent reports have also discussed a changing threat landscape. “[A]irpower has long been the U.S. trump card…While these choices were entirely sound in facing the Taliban and Iraq’s air force and integrated air defenses, Russia is an entirely different story. Russia fields perhaps the most formidable array of surface-to-air missile (SAM) defenses in the world,” wrote David Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson of the Rand Corp.  

“The era of strategic monopoly in the air—an anomaly held for the last 25 years that enabled a generation of airmen to focus almost exclusively on cross-domain force application in support of land warfare—is coming to an end,” read a report by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies released this week.  “As the Air Force no longer holds unchallenged power in air and space, and as the joint force has become so dependent upon both cyber access and leveraging cross-domain advantages, a purpose founded upon a presumption of strategic monopoly will lead to strategic failure. The Air Force must now articulate an operating concept reflecting the loss of monopoly in the air domain, but also addressing the interplay of the multiple competitive domains of air, space, and cyberspace.”

As the United States will increasingly encounter anti-access, area denial environments, a combination of manned and unmanned systems can help penetrate these contested spaces. “[T]o maximize the capabilities and extend the reach of all our airborne systems, the budget reflects how we’re expanding manned-unmanned teaming – from buying Navy MQ-4C Triton unmanned maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft, which can be paired with our P-8A Poseidon aircraft for a variety of missions; to buying Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters that can pair with MQ-1C Gray Eagle scouts; to buying Air Force F-35s that can network with both payloads and platforms,” Carter’s testimony read. 

The Army has worked to allow Apache helicopter pilots to control MQ-1C Gray Eagles in flight, and held successful tests in data sharing between the two platforms taking place in South Korea last year.  

Additionally, the Defense Department has begun to lift the veil a bit on the Strategic Capabilities Office, established in 2012 by Carter—then the deputy defense secretary—a classified research arm to develop innovate solutions to complex defense challenges. 

One of the projects the SCO (pronounced “scow”), as it’s known, is working on is the use of swarming and autonomous systems. “For the air, they’ve developed micro-drones that are really fast, and really resilient – they can fly through heavy winds and be kicked out the back of a fighter jet moving at Mach 0.9, like they did during an operational exercise in Alaska last year, or they can be thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of the Iraqi desert,” Carter’s testimony said. “And for the water, they’ve developed self-driving boats, which can network together to do all sorts of missions, from fleet defense to close-in surveillance – including around an island, real or artificial, without putting our sailors at risk. Each one leverages the wider world of technology. For example, the micro-drones use a lot of commercial components and 3D printing.”

Carter also expanded on comments made in February regarding investments in unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, saying DOD plans to invest $600 million in the next five years. DOD, he said this week, will increase spending in this area by $100 million in fiscal 2017 as part of a total $173 million and, eventually, $1.2 billion over future years. These investments include “rapid prototyping of UUVs in multiple sizes and diverse payloads – which is important, since UUVs can operate in shallow waters where manned submarines cannot.” 

The UAS that have become synonymous with the counterterrorism fight will also see continued funding. “Also, because our remotely-piloted intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR] aircraft play an important role in countering terrorism, the budget includes $1.2 billion for [fiscal] 2017 and $4.5 billion over the [future year defense program] to increase the number of around-the-clock permissive ISR combat air patrols from 70 today to 90 by the end of FY 2018,” Carter wrote regarding the increase in daily drone patrols announced last year. MQ-9 Reapers, Extended Range Reapers and MQ-1C Advanced Gray Eagles will contribute to the 90 CAPSs going forward, with 60 patrols conducted by the Air Force, 16 by the Army and 14 government-owned aircraft operated by contractors for the Air Force and Special Operations command, Carter’s statement read.

The Air Force is also still trying to figure out what the next “MQ-X” platform will be to address emerging threats and more contested environments.  “But what we’re trying to do now is really get around and figure out what do we really need, what sort of sensors, what type of things need to be sensed, what capability do we need and figure out how do you deliver that,” Brig. Gen. John Rauch, director of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Capabilities said earlier this year. “Does it need to be manned or unmanned…is it a high altitude, is it medium, is it both, is [full motion video] we’re looking for, hyperspectral [imaging], what’s that next thing that we’re going to need, and that’s one of the reasons why we really want open mission systems because whatever we decide today if that platform is going to be around for the next 25 years, we know between now and the time it retires things are going to change in the environment.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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