Air Force, Navy Seek Cooperation Developing Battle Hardened Drones

By Stew Magnuson
LAS VEGAS — After more than a decade of flying unmanned aerial vehicles in permissive environments, both the Air Force and Navy acknowledge that it won't always be this way. Future UAVs may have to dodge surface-to-air missiles, jet fighters and fend off attempts to jam their GPS and communication links.
The Air Force wants battle hardened remotely piloted aircraft by the early to mid-2020s, Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.
"We do recognize the need to operate in denied areas," he said. "From an Air Force perspective, we are watching with great interest what our brothers and sisters in the Navy are doing with their [unmanned combat air system demonstrator] program, because we both think we have a common problem."
Poss wasn't sure that there are any firm answers on how to approach the problem yet. He has seen some studies that show electronic countermeasures and decoys that are on the block 50 F-16 would do well on the current generation of remotely piloted aircraft.
There are concepts that would have multiple aircraft swarm into enemy territory, or fly at low altitudes to escape detection. If communication links are lost, hundreds of miles away, can they fly autonomously? He asked.
"We want to stay wing to wing with the United States Navy in what they are doing," he said.
The Navy, too, recognizes this problem, and is committed to finding solutions, said Vice Adm. William B. Burke, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems. They will inevitably encounter fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, GPS and communications jamming devices, cyber-attacks, and heat-seeking missiles launched from the ground and air.
"Unmanned systems must be able to navigate and ultimately master this complex environment to move to the next level," he said. "Hopefully, this sounds more like an engineering challenge than an impossible task."
The Navy is experimenting with the unmanned combat air system demonstrator, or UCAS-D, which is the service's "down payment" on the concept of integrating the carrier air wing with an unmanned aircraft by 2020, he said. The goal is to have at-sea carrier launch and recovery by the end of 2013. That will eventually evolve into an ISR platform.
The Air Force's next-generation UAV, once known as the MQ-X, it is now called the next-generation remotely piloted aircraft, Poss said.
"We want as many of these things as we can get ... And figure out their capabilities and whether they can operate in these highly challenged environments," Burke said. Even if they can't, they can still do some of the dirty, dangerous or dull tasks that manned aircraft might do, and free them up to fly in contested airspace.
"But I think that is setting our sights a little too low. I'm hopeful we can get to something where we can operate in these more challenging environments," Burke said.
The Navy is working closely with the Air Force on these problems, he said.
The air-sea battle concept, which the two services are jointly developing to address anti-access, area-denial issues, has brought the Navy and Air Force closer together, Burke said. They are looking for synergies in both their manned and unmanned platforms as well as their operational approaches, he added.
Meanwhile, on the topic of budgets, Burke said the Navy places high enough priority on unmanned systems to protect them. Sequestration would be a 10-percent across the board cut. But if the Navy were given the better option of picking and choosing winners and losers in its own budget, then unmanned systems would be protected from the ax.
"We are going to great lengths to make sure we can protect those programs into the future. If we have the luxury to pick and choose, then unmanned systems will do great. If we don't, they will be cut like everything else."
Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

Topics: Aviation, Robotics

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