The City Beat will be attending the unmanned aircraft conference today at UND. Basically, it sounds like the Air Force is telling universities where it’s going with this technology, which should be pretty useful to universities that want to get involved.
Here’s the Air Force paper that undergirds the conference. As is frequently the case with technical papers, this one is dense with information. I was glancing through it today in preparation for the conference and decided that deciphering a few paragraphs would make an interesting blog topic.
So here goes. This is from the section called "UAS characteristics":
An unmanned aircraft is not limited by human performance or physiological characteristics. Therefore, extreme persistence and maneuverability are intrinsic benefits that can be realized by UAS. Given that they are unmanned, potential UAS operational environments can include contested and denied areas without exposing a crew to those risks. Further, the size of the aircraft is not constrained by life support elements and size of the person. Ultimately unmanned airpower can be carried in a backpack with commensurate capabilities.
So far, we’ve seen unmanned aircraft used in very long missions that require loitering over the battlefield or a reconnaissance target for more than 24 hours. We’ve not seen the use of unmanned aircraft that can autonomously outmaneuver a fighter plane — though I suppose missiles are a kind of unmanned aircraft — or surface-to-air missiles.
What the military is thinking of, though, is a UCAV, several of which are now under development. UCAVs would, in effect, replace fighter-bombers. This is especially important in suppressing the ever more sophisticated surface-to-air missile defenses that’s available on the arms market. In the future, these could be potential suicide missions for manned aircraft, even stealthy ones. A UCAV bomber would be able to evade missiles better because of its high maneuverability and, if it gets blown up, we buy another one.
Future UAS will require access to an interoperable, affordable, responsive and sustainable tactical network system of systems capable of satisfying Service, Joint, Interagency, and Coalition tactical information exchanges. This tactical network system will be distributed, scalable and secure. It includes, but is not limited to, human interfaces, software applications and interfaces, network transport, network services, information services and the hardware and interfaces necessary to form a complete system that delivers tactical mission outcomes. The tactical network system operates as independent small combat sub-networks connected to each other and to the Global Information Grid (GIG). The advantages of this structure make worldwide real-time information available to the pilot as well as worldwide real-time dissemination of information from the UAS. Terrestrial based resources and connectivity allow specialized skills to be called upon on demand when and where needed.
This is a pretty amazing vision. The idea is not to necessarily have one aircraft that can do the mission, but a system of multiple aircraft working together and we’ve been developing that technology for years.
For example, the air-defense supression mission is now done by specialized Wild Weasel aircraft that have equipment that detect radar, that direct signals at the radar to jam it and that fire missiles at the radar to destroy it. A system of Wild Weasel aircraft might include, for example, lead aircraft that detect the radar signals and tells follow-on aircraft where to direct their jamming and other aircraft to launch missiles from outside radar range. Opening bomb bays would screw up a stealth aircraft’s shape, which is important because the shape helps deflect radar signals away and not back to the radar.
Because the control stations are on the ground, the unmanned aircraft system could call on the expertise of anyone near those stations. Instead of, say, 10 aircraft with a crew of 20 (Wild Weasel aircraft usually have a pilot and an electronic warfare officer), we’d have 10 aircraft with a crew of 100. For example, we could have two different EW officers, one specialized in jamming and spoofing radars and one specialized in hacking into air defense computers. (The latter may have happened a few years back when the Israelis bombed Syria. [Via Danger Room.])
UAS increase the percentage of assets available for operations due to their distributive nature. It may be possible for initial qualification training of UAS crews to be accomplished via simulators almost entirely without launching an aircraft, enabling a higher percentage of aircraft to be combat coded and available for other operations. The resulting deployment and employment efficiencies lend greater capability at the same or reduced expense when compared to manned equivalents.
The Air Force thinks some training for unmanned aircraft could be done almost entirely by simulation, which leaves more aircraft available for real missions. Also, I suppose it’s possible to train pilots from stateside using assets deployed overseas because, with a satellite hook-up, it doesn’t really matter where the pilots are.
UAS will adopt a UAS Control Segment (UCS) architecture that is open, standard, scalable and will allow for rapid addition of modular functionality. This architecture will enable the warfighter to add capability, offer competitive options, encourage innovation and increase cost control. It can also dramatically improve interoperability and data access, and increase training efficiencies. Flexibility will allow adapting the man-machine interface for specific Military Service’s Concept of Operations (CONOPS) while maintaining commonality on the underlying architecture and computing hardware. Furthermore, a Department of Defense (DoD) architecture utilizing a core open architecture model will allow competition among companies to provide new tools like visualization, data archiving and tagging, and auto tracking.
This just means the different equipment that goes into unmanned aircraft could be made modular. This would a) allow more companies to compete to develop different modules and b) different armed services can have the module of their choice.
As technologies advance, UAS automation and hypersonic flight will reshape the battlefield of tomorrow. One of the most important elements to consider with this battlefield is the potential for UAS to rapidly compress the observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) loop. Future UAS able to perceive the situation and act independently with limited or little human input will greatly shorten decision time. This Perceive-Act line is critical to countering growing adversary UAS threats that seek automation capabilities… As autonomy and automation merge, UAS will be able to swarm (one pilot directing the actions of many multi-mission aircraft) creating a focused, relentless, and scaled attack.
We’re talking about aircraft that can fly at Mach 5 and react instantly to the battle situation instead of waiting for the controller to decide what to do. This is kind of a touchy legal area because laws of war are predicated on the fact that somebody be responsible for pulling the trigger when somebody else gets killed. If it’s a machine that did it, it’s hard to assign responsibility if civilians get killed accidentally.
Earlier in this Air Force document, there was mention of something called "man on the loop" as opposed to "man in the loop." This appears to mean that the man will not be pulling the trigger, but will authorize the machine to pull the trigger within certain parameters and can veto at anytime. MITL is direct remote control of one aircraft by one man. MOTL is control of a set of aircraft by one man, meaning this man would direct a swarm of aircraft toward an objective but not be dealing with how individual aircraft are performing. That’s my read of it anyway, based on this paper. (Another article implies that MITL means manned aircraft, but I think the writer has his definitions mixed up.)
The rest of the paper goes into details about the different unmanned aircraft systems and how the Air Force hopes to develop their use, but I don’t have time to go into that now.