The widespread introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles to the battlefield during the last decade has been called revolutionary. But their applications so far have mostly been in the reconnaissance and surveillance realm, with only a handful of aircraft able to fire weapons.
Military leaders are beginning think about concepts for the third-generation UAVs. In the future, they will want the drones to do a lot more than peer down on adversaries.
The Air Force sees a world in 15 to 20 years where all its aircraft have an unmanned element, said Col. Eric S. Mathewson, director of the unmanned aerial systems task force at Air Force headquarters.
The Predator and Reaper aircraft carrying out operations today are considered the second-generation unmanned aerial vehicles. The Air Force is already looking at what comes next. It sees a time when every mission the service conducts has an unmanned variant, Mathewson said at the Army Aviation Association of America unmanned systems symposium.
The third-generation drone the Air Force envisions will do airlift, resupply, electronic attack, strike and aerial refueling. However, it only wants to build one workhorse medium to large UAV to do all these missions. This third-generation UAV will have basic flight controls and power systems, but “its guts will be empty. It’s a payload agnostic aircraft,” he said.
The new drone could be an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform one day, and an aerial refueler the next. Or instead of fuel, it could have supplies placed in its hold and be flown to remote bases. A weapon system module for strike missions could also be swapped in when necessary.
“It does nothing. It does everything,” Mathewson said. The service wants to spend the bulk of its money on the modular payloads instead of the aircraft itself, he added.
He likened the concept to an iPhone, a service oriented product in which outsiders such as contractors supply applications rapidly in response to the consumers’ needs.
“This is where we’re going. This is what we want to do as far as this interoperable architecture,” he added. “Hopefully all the services can come together and work on that.”
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Glenn M. Walters, deputy director for resources and acquisitions for the Joint Staff, J8, warned against using old business practices for building UAVs. Models shouldn’t be in the inventory for 30 years as some other equipment. If a production line is started, it shouldn’t last more than five years, he said. Then the aircraft should be redesigned.
“That’s the philosophy we need to get to because the battlefield changes a lot quicker than that, and we need to keep up,” Walters said.
In the near term, the fight in Afghanistan is accelerating resupply as a new UAV mission. Remote outposts that cannot be served by fixed-wing aircraft and a shortage of helicopter pilots are pushing the military to explore the use of automated rotary-wing logistics aircraft.
Gen. James F. Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. James Mattis, commander of Joint Forces Command, along with officials from the U.S. Transportation Command, are spearheading an effort to speed a vertical take-off and lift capability into the field. Some aircraft have already been tested in Afghanistan, Gen. Duncan McNabb, Transcom commander, told Washington, D.C.-based reporters. Dropping supplies by parachute is the traditional way to resupply troops in hard-to-reach posts, he noted. But a UAV alternative could be “beneficial,” he said. Air drops are a one-way trip, he noted.
“For us, the biggest issue using air drop to get stuff in is not getting the stuff in, but getting the stuff back out.”
The soldiers or marines on the ground may not care about returning items. They just want to receive needed supplies. Not all of the items delivered to bases are meant to be consumed or left behind, though. Some equipment needs to be returned.
Col. Robert J. Sova, capability manager for unmanned aerial systems at the Army Training and Doctrine Command, said there is a need for unpiloted resupply missions. The operational readiness of Army resupply helicopters is high, but “it’s the crews that we don’t have enough of.”
If there were an automated aircraft that could take over these relatively easy and mundane resupply missions, then pilots would be freed up to take on more demanding and “high-value” tasks. “We’re not going to get more people,” Sova added.
It is not necessary to develop new UAVs to accomplish this, Sova said. The current airlift helicopters could be configured to do unpiloted missions. That way, the Army leverages the technology it has already developed.
“I truly believe, and I have talked to our industry partners, that we have the ability to take the man out of the cockpit in those platforms,” Sova said.
Special operators also want unmanned aircraft to perform some of their unique missions, said Col. Steven D. Mathias, director of special operations aviation at the Army Special Operations Command.
For example, psychological operations units would like to drop leaflets or broadcast messages through loudspeakers mounted on drones to carry out missions.
Communications relay is another important task that UAVs can perform, he said.
Special operators, as well as marines and soldiers, have had difficulties communicating in deep valleys or in urban landscapes where tall buildings or mountains block radio signals. An aerial drone can serve as a relay and push communications back to a home base or to other units nearby.
All these potential new missions will work fine if airspace is uncontested.
Army and Air Force officials were asked repeatedly at the conference about their plans for protecting UAVs in contested airspace. For the past eight years, during the rapid increase in unmanned aircraft use, the U.S. military has operated over the friendly skies of Afghanistan, Iraq and other territories. Military analysts and other pundits have questioned how effective UAVs will be in battle against so-called peer competitors — nations that have robust air defenses. Currently, there are no foreign air forces opposing UAVs, or anti-aircraft batteries primed to shoot them down.
Only the Air Force’s Mathewson responded. “The third-generation UAS will be required to have some capability when it comes to contested airspace,” he said, without elaborating.
Long term, the Defense Department’s Fiscal Year 2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap said there are plans for robotic fighter jets with air-to-air combat missions in the 2025 timeframe.
The plan calls for “UAS to conduct air-to-air combat operations [where they] can fly into areas the U.S. does not have aerial dominance and engage in air-to-air combat defeating enemy fighters with greater maneuverability and at higher performance than ‘manned’ aircraft.”
A drone capable of reaching Mach speeds and arriving anywhere on Earth within two to three hours to deliver either surveillance or strike capabilities is also included in long-range plans.
Also in the roadmap are other capabilities that go far beyond simply transmitting full-motion video.
For the Navy, it calls for UAVs that can detect and neutralize surface, near-surface or floating sea mines. An air-to-air tanker is envisioned for the Air Force in the 2025 timeframe. And for combat medics, there are plans for a drone that can fly in medical supplies and carry back the wounded while keeping them on life-support systems.
Thirty years out, Mathewson said the Air Force foresees a day when more than the aircraft are automated. Ground robots on tarmacs are going to do the refueling, routine maintenance and munitions loading.
Using robots to perform tasks normally carried out by ground crews would be difficult today since current fleets are not configured to be serviced by robots. Although designing future aircraft so they can accommodate automation would make that relatively easy, he said.
Furthermore, there is no reason why transport aircraft can’t be flown without pilots today — other than the cultural barriers, of course. He admitted flying in a plane with no one in the cockpit would be unnerving for some.
“Automation is all around us. So why do we waste time and effort going from point A to point B?” he asked. Commercial airliners are already on autopilot for most of their flights.
The reliability of these systems is improving, Mathewson said.
“If that airplane has to do an emergency landing, it will nail the parameters — versus a human being who is going to make some errors,” he said.
What if the computer goes bad? “It will go bad if there is a person there or not. It’s the same outcome,” he said.
“This is where we see our Air Force going over the next 40 years,” he added.