Special Operations Drones Face Obsolescence

By Jon Harper
ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle

Photo: Defense Dept.

TAMPA Fla. — The unmanned aerial vehicles that U.S. special operations forces use are at risk of becoming obsolete as adversaries advance their counter-drone capabilities, commanders said May 17.

Enemies and potential adversaries are developing more advanced weapons — including cyber and electronic warfare tools — that could threaten the aircrafts’ survivability, officials said during a panel discussion at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida.

“Our UAVs are not designed for the kind of threat environments … [that special operators will face] in the future,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

U.S. military drones have operated with near impunity over the past 15 years of war against terrorists and insurgent groups, noted Capt. Keith Davids, deputy commander of U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command.

“In a contested environment how effective will they be? How survivable will they be?” he said. “Frankly, I think some current and certainly future projected capabilities of some of our competitors will render many of our current systems obsolete.”

Reducing the signatures and visibility of U.S. drones on the battlefield might be a better option than trying to harden the systems against electronic warfare attack, Tovo said. Less expensive, more disposable assets could also fit the bill.  

“The large [unmanned aerial systems] that we’re relying on now perhaps could be replaced by a multitude of essentially throwaway swarms of UAVs,” he said.

Drone operations are too manpower-intensive, officials said. Faced with limited budgets and personnel, Special Operations Command needs systems that can fly with less human interaction.

It currently takes 11 people to operate the ScanEagle long-endurance UAV, Davids said. “We’d like to flip that ratio,” he said. “I’d like to have one person operating 11 systems.”

SOCOM officials see autonomy, artificial intelligence and machine learning opening up new possibilities for drone operations. They could be used not only to facilitate flying, but also the processing, exploitation and dissemination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information collected by the aircraft, said Lt. Gen. Bradley Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.

“Clearly technology is proving that … many of these tasks can be autonomously applied, and we need to do that within this portfolio,” he said.

The panelists’ remarks about UAVs and the threats that they face came a day after SOCOM announced a new DRONEWERX initiative aimed at advancing drone technology. The new organization was modeled after Special Operations Command’s SOFWERX initiative which opened the door to nontraditional partners in industry and academia to do fast prototyping and experimentation.

The objective of DRONEWERX is “to really get at how do we leverage this combination of swarm technology, commercial drone technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and actually create near-term combat capability,” said James “Hondo” Geurts, SOCOM’s acquisition executive.


Topics: Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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