ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Report: Manned-Unmanned Teaming Needed to Boost Combat Airpower
The Air Force is on the technological cusp of flying manned combat aircraft in tandem with unmanned systems, and should embrace that concept as it looks to add warfighting capacity and stay ahead of peer competitors, analysts said in a new report.
The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies released July 10 its latest policy paper titled, “Manned-Unmanned Aircraft Teaming: Taking Combat Airpower to the Next Level.” The study encouraged the Air Force to pursue a partnering concept where a manned F-35 joint strike fighter could potentially team up with autonomously operated F-16 multirole fighters for a variety of missions. That could speed up decision-making, bring down costs and fill capability gaps until new assets come online.
“Thanks to advancements in autonomy, processing power and information exchange capabilities, the Air Force will soon be able to fly traditionally manned combat aircraft in partnership with unmanned aircraft,” the report said. “Approaching this opportunity in a graduated fashion with limited risk allows the operational community to explore new concepts of operation and tactics in an evolutionary fashion."
The service could benefit from taking retired platforms and incorporating autonomous capabilities that can gather, manage and prioritize information to make a command decision in a combat situation more rapidly than a human operator, said Douglas Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute.
“The path that we’re seeing to reduce risk, manage cost and get this capability out there fast is harness what we’ve already got,” he said. Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona already houses retired aircraft such as F-16s or B-1 bombers, he noted during an event in Washington, D.C., where the paper was released. “They’re designed for combat missions. … They’ve got hard points for weapons and are certified to carry those weapons. Pilots know how to operate with them. They are known, mature systems.”
In 2017, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Lockheed Martin’s SkunkWorks unit successfully demonstrated how manned-unmanned teaming could boost combat efficiency as part of the "loyal wingman" effort. An experimental F-16 aircraft autonomously reacted to a threat environment during an air-to-ground strike mission demonstration as part of the Have Raider II effort.
Manned-unmanned teaming could serve a broad array of missions such as air superiority, strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and electronic warfare, Birkey said. Autonomous platforms can also be stationed abroad as a deterrent to adversaries without the personnel and logistical requirements that are currently associated with a manned asset, he added.
Using previously retired systems and turning them into unmanned platforms could also reduce operations and maintenance costs, he noted.
“These unmanned assets really only need to be flown sufficiently to keep the mechanical systems healthy, and so that is a radically different demand signal than what you have to have to keep pilots trained and current,” he said. Student pilots can also use live-virtual-constructive training to simulate the presence of these platforms, he added.
The number of fighters and bombers within the Air Force fleet have been reduced significantly since the Cold War, said retired Maj. Gen. Lawrence Stutzriem, Mitchell Institute director of research. The service counted 2,893 fighters and 661 bombers in its inventory in 1990; by 2018, those numbers were down to 1,700 and 157, respectively, according to the paper.
The Air Force must also contend with a variety of high-priority programs that are expected to come online around the same time, to include: the new end-to-end jet trainer system, or T-X; the B-21 bomber; the combat rescue helicopter recapitalization; the ground-based strategic deterrent; and ongoing F-35 deliveries, Stutzriem noted.
“There’s not going to be a magic expansion in significant ways of the budget [but] the threat is not going to go away," he said. “The concept of manned-unmanned teaming is the quickest way, cheapest way to fill that gap” until new platforms are available, he added.
Pentagon science-and-technology organizations such as the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are working on autonomous capabilities that could become part of this future concept.
Maj. Gen. William Cooley, commander of AFRL, said his organization is developing a common architecture and framework to employ more advanced software and hardware systems rapidly. “Having that common architecture that allows us to integrate different capabilities is essential," he said.
Developing prototypes and having the space and contracting authorities to experiment will also be critical, he noted. “I think we’re poised to be able to do that, but we’ve got to start making it happen.”
While the idea of using previously retired combat aircraft to perform an unmanned “loyal wingman” mission certainly has merit, the service might also eventually consider a dedicated, low-cost platform, Cooley said.
AFRL, along with Kratos, has been developing an unmanned aerial vehicle known as the XQ-58A, which is scheduled for first flight this fall, he said. “The basic idea is can we make a capable, combat-type aircraft ... by using modern manufacturing techniques and drive the cost as low as possible, such that it’s similar to what we’re talking about … with refurbishing F-16s,” he added.
Cooley declined to speculate on when teams of manned combat aircraft partnered with multiple unmanned platforms could feasibly enter operations.
“We understand the nature of the [great power] competition … so we would very much like to get a capability out as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s really easy to trip coming out of the starting gate if we don’t think this through and do some of the experimentation and the prototyping and building of trust that we talked about.”
Leaders from the Air Force, Navy and Army Research Laboratory have been meeting on a quarterly basis to synchronize their efforts on manned-unmanned teaming, he added.
“That’s an important step for us to ensure that we are smartly leveraging the capabilities, because we do not have the resources to get … everything we need to get done” individually, he said.