Urban Battlefield is Proving Ground For Unmanned Aerial Systems

By Grace Jean

Unpiloted aircraft are proliferating in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while the demand for smaller and more capable systems continues to grow, analysts say that in order to make these aircraft more effective in the urban environment, a fistful of technology improvements are needed.

In the open battlefield environment of past conflicts, small numbers of UAVs were typically used for reconnaissance missions. Today, such aircraft also enable fire support, force protection and signals collection.

Now that the fight has moved into city streets, unmanned systems have encountered some challenges. Buildings can block the line-of-sight of an aircraft and interfere with its communications and flight operations. These so-called “urban canyons” in turn extend the time it can take for troops to identify and engage a target.

“We need to close that identification-engagement gap,” says Russell Glenn, senior defense analyst with RAND Corp.

The enemy has learned how to exploit that weakness by simply ducking into buildings and challenging rules of engagement, says Glenn. Once a target enters a building, commanders are left with difficult decisions. Do they send a team in to hunt them down or do they hit the building with force? In such scenarios, rules of engagement can interfere with military action and possibly allow the enemy to get away.

“That was and remains a particular problem for coalition forces in Iraq,” he says.

In addition, the transmission of video and imagery on limited bandwidth is causing difficulties.

“It is getting crowded up there,” says Larry Dickerson, senior analyst for Forecast International.

Information from UAVs often traverses a number of channels before reaching a decision maker. Dickerson says he heard of one report in which intelligence from an Army UAV had to be transmitted through an offshore Navy command center in order to reach the intended recipient on land.

“Ideally, what you would have is every system being able to communicate with every data transmission system, such that UAV ‘A’ would be able to provide information directly, rather than having to go through nodes,” says Glenn.

The Pentagon last January initiated a program to bring real-time surveillance information directly to forces in urban combat zones. Last fall, Northrop Grumman Corp. demonstrated an autonomous system developed under this program that is capable of controlling low-flying UAVs using portable devices.

“The single most important thing the war fighter is not able to do today is get real time surveillance information on the ground. He wants to know what is happening on the other side of the street, that side of the building,” says H.R. Keshavan, program manager of the company’s heterogeneous urban reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition team (HURT) system. The HURT system provides that capability, he says.

During a demonstration in Victorville, Calif., four small UAVs—two Ravens, a Pointer and an RMAX helicopter—soared over the abandoned buildings and streets at the former site of George Air Force Base as two role players made their way to an enemy hideout. Using a laptop, one operator requested imagery of buildings and a moving truck. The system automatically selected the nearest UAV to provide that information. He was able to call up video of his location from several minutes before to determine whether enemies had been in the area.

Keshavan says the company’s system is scheduled for another demonstration in October, possibly at the Marine Corps’ urban training facility at Twentynine Palms, Calif. In the exercise, five war fighters on the ground simultaneously will request information from eight different aircraft. The demonstration will test the system’s capability to offer communications relays beyond the line-of-sight and its ability to integrate an additional aerial platform in the midst of operations.

To address the larger issues of conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, (ISR), operations in an urban setting, the Defense Department has turned, in part, to war games and simulations.

Joint Forces Command has built models and simulations to help commanders conduct better ISR collection and employment of ISR assets, says Duane Schattle, deputy director of the joint urban operations office.

The Defense Department, in 2002, lacked the capability to simulate large urban areas. Most of the existing simulations were broad, campaign-like models that could generate environments such as one city block or a tank-on-tank engagement, says Schattle. But in order to create the number of buildings and people needed for an entire city, the team had to build models and simulations from scratch.

By tying existing capabilities and connecting to the United States’ supercomputer infrastructure, the team came up with a synthetic environment consisting of more than two million buildings and up to one million civilians who could perform various behaviors, such as going to work during the rush hour, eating, shopping and praying, says Tony Cerri, head of the experimentation engineering department.

“Those are all things that are very interesting to the sensor community,” he says.

The engineers used this environment to support the fielding of a prototype system comprised of sensors, shooters and alert systems to protect airfields. They modeled the airfield, ran tests and submitted suggestions of what they thought would be the optimum deployment of all the sensors before the prototype went into theater, which saved time and, potentially, lives, says Cerri.

The environment has been used in a series of experiments, called Urban Resolve 2015, that has yielded a number of tools. The Joint Virtual Operations Tool (JVOT) is a walk-through environment of Baghdad, which allows forces on the ground to look at where they’re going to conduct mission operations prior to going in, says Jim Blank, modeling and simulation division chief.

“You pretty much cover the whole gamut here, from satellites to the individual soldier, Marine, walking around the streets of Baghdad. We’ve got to be able to replicate all of that, and the payoff for the war-fighter is huge,” says Blank.

Another one is the geospatial analysis planning and support (GAPS) tool that allows forces on the ground to optimize the placement of their sensors within the urban environment, using the power of modeling and simulation, says Blank.

The experiment continues to forge ahead as the team works on linking cultural models to this urban environment to better understand how military operations impact a city’s population and its way of life. But even as Urban Resolve 2015 sheds light on how to deal with future conflicts, the needs of the current one remains most pressing.

“Our priorities are very similar to the priorities of the nation. We’re looking at [improvised explosive devices], we’re looking at sensor employment, we’re supporting [Central Command] with near-term stuff,” says Schattle. “We’re trying to get to that point where we can adapt before the bad guy adapts, have him react to us instead of us reacting to him.”

One of the sensors that is greatly needed is one that can “see” through walls of buildings, says RAND’s Glenn.

“There’s no question we need the types of things that can see through walls, or at least, sense through walls. There’s a need to be able to see down into tunnels and underground capabilities,” agrees Schattle. “It’s about being able to see as much as you can, to identify as much as you can, so you can make a decision based on information.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s special projects office recently announced the development of a new portable handheld device that can be held up to a wall to detect movements using radar technology. Scientists reportedly are developing other sensors that will give troops such capabilities on the move. But they might not materialize fast enough and as a result the modeling and simulation community is working on alternative solutions.

“There’s never going to be enough UAVs or different types of platforms to cover everything, so what we’re trying to do is figure out what’s the best package to allow us to do it,” says Schattle. “We’re not just looking at UAVs. We’re looking at, how do you integrate humans, how do you integrate every soldier, sailor and Marine out there because he or she is a sensor. How do you blend that together to give you a more powerful synergy?”

The popularity of UAVs for the urban combat zone has blossomed in part because of their success in Iraq. In a December report, the Government Accountability Office stated that as of August 2005, the Defense Department had approximately 1,500 unmanned aircraft flying in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the department’s “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030,” combatant commanders are requesting even more UAVs.

The GAO report also found that the budget request for unmanned aerial systems escalated between 2001 and 2005, from about $363 million to about $2.2 billion.

“The United States’ defense budget for UAVs is more than anybody could have dreamed of before 9/11,” says Dickerson.

The market has responded in kind, with companies developing more and more UAVs to function as eyes in the sky. Many of these are not large aircraft, but rather those that are portable enough to fit into a backpack.

One of the leading small unmanned aircraft developers, AeroVironment, which has supplied U.S. forces with mini-UAVs called Dragon Eye and Raven, has produced even smaller sensors for urban battlefield use. Weighing only 235 grams, the Wasp is being operated by Marines.

“The Wasp can be launched quickly and provides real-time tactical reconnaissance and surveillance information within minutes,” says Angela Schutt, marketing communications for the company.

The Corps also has begun using a larger UAV called Puma, which has a broader range of capabilities, including the ability to land in water, she added.

Putting these smaller UAVs into the hands of war-fighters is a good idea to a certain point, says Dickerson. It all depends on the missions they are performing. If it’s not useful, it might not leave the box, he says, because it’s just something more they have to carry.

But giving UAVs to a company-level unit makes sense for the counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.

“In this situation, you’re occupying an area where you have to seek these guys out. That’s where UAVs play a more important role, because you need situational awareness,” says Dickerson.

The simple wear and tear of operating in adverse weather conditions and terrain is taking a toll on these handheld UAVs.

“They are cycling through stuff a lot faster than they thought they would,” says Dickerson.

That may factor into the prospering UAV market, which is closing in on $14 to $15 billion during the next 10 years, says Dickerson. “It’s still growing. There’s possibility that in the distant future, 2020, 2030, we could see a significant market segment that could be worth more than $30 billion over a 10-year period.”

While the aircraft aren’t that much cheaper than acquiring a manned system, Dickerson says they are filling a war-fighting requirement.

“There has been a push to make these things do more, which has some people worried,” he says. Demands for more capabilities mean adding more sensors onto UAVs, which in turn increases costs.

Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk, one of the largest unmanned aircraft in use, costs $35 million, fully loaded. But Dickerson says it could reach $65 million because of all the sensors the Air Force keeps adding onto it.

Northrop Grumman just deployed two more RQ-4A Global Hawk UAVs into theater and is producing seven RQ-4B Global Hawks, which can carry 1,000 pounds more than the RQ-4A. In addition to the sensors found on the 4A, the 4B also can accommodate signals intelligence collection systems, says Revelle Anderson, spokesperson for the program.

Dickerson predicts a decline in the UAV market as the bulge in procurement ends and especially when operations in Iraq cease. Then, he says, the challenge for the Defense Department will be to figure out where it wants to go with the autonomous vehicles.

“These systems have yet to be tested in an environment where you’re up against a class A opponent,” such as the Russians, says Dickerson. “Iraq has provided a counter insurgency where UAVs are very well suited to this type of threat. Whether they’ll be as useful in a conventional threat remains to be seen,” he says.

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Urban Warfare, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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