Roadmap for Robotics

Dec. 1, 2009

The Air Force, looking four decades into the future, sees unmanned air vehicles performing automated takeoffs and landings, independently avoiding bad weather, aircraft, and threats. UAVs will fly alongside manned aircraft often as wingmen, executing autonomous tasks such as employing air-to-air or air-to-ground weapons while penetrating dense air defense networks. A single pilot may control multiple UAVs to allow the unmanned aircraft to swarm an adversary’s forces.

This is the future that USAF outlined this summer in its Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Flight Plan. While not forecasting the end of manned aviation, the flight plan lays out a coherent approach to integrating unmanned vehicles into USAF’s inventory and operations, and indicates UAVs will be vastly more prominent in Air Force plans in 2047, the Air Force centennial year.

A Global Hawk Block 30 runs through maneuvers on its first flight. (Northrop Grumman photo)

Unmanned aircraft have been a part of the Air Force since it became independent. The service flew unmanned B-17s to collect radioactive materials after detonating atomic bombs. Unmanned systems subsequently went through lengthy periods of neglect, but the flight plan forecasts a bright future.

For starters, the pace of current operations and the need for increased situational awareness demand unmanned intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft to allow the air component to be more effective and efficient.

One example is air support for the counterinsurgency and counterterror missions, where the demand is to complete the targeting cycle in minutes. This requirement requires persistence from ISR forces—to sweep wide areas, detect an activity, and then stare at key places for hours and days at a time.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff, ISR, makes this point when talking about the successful strike against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. It took six minutes for a pair of F-16s to deliver the GBU-12 500-pound bomb and the GBU-38 JDAM, but 6,000 hours of Predator time to track and pinpoint Zarqawi’s location, Deptula said.

It is precisely this demand for more ISR persistence that has given rise to the Air Force’s need for a coherent and integrated roadmap for its unmanned force. The roadmap says, “Extreme persistence and maneuverability are intrinsic benefits that can be realized” by unmanned aircraft systems.

A Big Family

The increased use of UASs to meet that ISR demand has been evident. Coalition unmanned aircraft flew more than 400,000 hours over Iraq and Afghanistan just by October of 2006, and Predator and Reaper orbits have increased rapidly since then.

More relevant is the future outlook. In 2008, DOD bought 775 unmanned aerial vehicles—from five large Global Hawks to two dozen Predators, 16 Reaper/Warriors, 28 Shadows, and more than 700 man-portable Ravens. In fact, the department will spend $28 billion on unmanned systems through 2015—exceeding the $25 billion DOD spent on them since the 1950s.

The Air Force envisions a family of unmanned systems—small, medium, and large.

Small UAVs are perhaps the least well-known. These include the Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle, or BATMAV. With just over 400 aircraft in the inventory, the one-pound BATMAV can fly for 45 minutes with its forward- and side-looking camera and beam information three miles back to a combat controller.

The RQ-11 Raven is a slightly larger platform that can reach 14,000 feet for up to 90 minutes and reach out to six miles from the controller. It can follow a programmed, GPS guided route, allowing the operator to exploit the electro-optical (television) and infrared camera day or night in clear weather.

The Scan Eagle is the largest in this category. Weighing 40 pounds, it operates at 2,500 feet after being catapult launched. Its turreted camera also provides EO and IR reconnaissance with the ability to monitor a vehicle from five miles away.

A crew chief with the 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Creech AFB, Nev., performs a preflight inspection on an MQ-9 Reaper. (Photo by Steve Huckvale)

Today, these small UAVs provide immediate situational awareness in the vicinity of airmen either supporting the joint team or augmenting base security. The Air Force’s vision anticipates future small UAVs built with nano or biomechanical technology that can operate in areas previously beyond the airman’s imagination—such as inside buildings or similar confined spaces.

These nano aircraft will provide a much broader range of capabilities, such as cyber attack, communication relays, signals collection, and even lethal attack. Such air vehicles will support an individual or small team operating in narrow, cramped spaces of an urban environment, dense jungle, or underground caves and bunkers.

Maximizing the effectiveness of small unmanned systems takes more than just flying the air vehicle. Organizational changes are necessary; and to that end, the Air Force plans to create two specialized small UAS squadrons, in Air Force Special Operations Command, by 2010.

New UAV Missions Coming

The flight plan addresses another key issue—training and qualifications for small UASs. To solve it, the Air Force is taking an innovative approach. Unlike their larger Predator and Global Hawk cousins, small UASs will be maintained and flown, with the sensor operated, all by the same person. In many cases, the small UAS will be as much an adjunct piece of equipment as it will be a stand-alone dedicated aircraft.

Having contributed to roughly half the effective strikes against al Qaeda’s global leadership network, the Air Force’s medium UAS capabilities resident in the MQ-1 Predator and its follow-on MQ-9 Reaper are familiar to many.

In the beginning, two qualities defined these system’s value: endurance and full-motion video (FMV). During initial operations in Afghanistan, the Predator’s persistence made it invaluable in detecting, tracking, and engaging key Taliban and al Qaeda leadership, such as the successful attack against Mohammed Atef in November 2001.

The demand for FMV is driven in part by the ease of using it—the average person can easily use and understand the information.

Predator’s capabilities have been steadily increased since its first use in a combat zone during Operation Allied Force in 1999. The EO/IR camera has been expanded to include signals collection and radar imagery—data which require a degree of expertise to exploit and use. While today a Predator or Reaper can monitor a single location, the Air Force is introducing wide area airborne surveillance technology that will allow a single airframe to cover a five-mile area and support 12 different joint tactical air controllers via the laptop-based Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER.

The flight plan lays out ambitious plans for USAF’s medium-size unmanned aircraft. Some of those improvements include adding communications relay nodes on them. Looking beyond that, by 2020, the Air Force plans on fielding a replacement to the Reaper. It will add electronic warfare and attack capabilities to the mix while operating with greater autonomy than the current fleet.

Within the next decade, airmen will operate medium-size UASs that perform not just interdiction or close air support as the Reaper does today, but also suppression of enemy air defenses, aeromedical evacuation, and personnel recovery while being air refuelable or delivering fuel on orbit.

Unmanned aircraft will soon be able to intercept ballistic missiles and support counterair missions, according to the flight plan. An unmanned vehicle armed with air-to-air missiles isn’t new, though. In December 2002, an Air Force Predator fired an AIM-92 at a MiG-25 over Iraq. The MiG-25, however, got the better of the engagement and downed the MQ-1.

The Air Force has created the 42nd Attack Squadron, at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, to operate the MQ-9 attack aircraft.

Army Sgt. Dane Phelps with the 25th Infantry Division, launches an RQ-11 Raven during a joint US and Iraqi cordon and search operation in Iraq. (USA photo)

The explosion of UAS operations resulted in a unique milestone in 2009—this year, the Air Force will train more unmanned aircraft pilots than it trains fighter and bomber pilots.

In training the Predator, Reaper, and future UAS aircrews, however, the Air Force is finding that it must depart from past practices and needs innovative approaches for pilot manning.

In the past, the Air Force relied on experienced aircrews from other weapons systems, such as F-16s or A-10s, to man the Predator squadron. Given the constraints on the rated force, the cost to graduate a pilot and the rapid growth of unmanned systems, USAF looked at two alternatives to develop the UAS pilot.

One is a nontraditional path that does not require the officer to go through undergraduate pilot training. In September, the Air Force graduated the first class of eight UAS pilots at Creech who had not attended any part of the traditional UPT program.

The second option involves creating a special irregular warfare (IW) pilot. After earning their instrument rating in the T-6, the IW UAS pilot would transition to the training unit. This officer’s career path would alternate between UAS and manned aircraft, such as the MC-12.

At the same time, the Air Force recognizes the need for a new approach to the sensor operators for medium- and large-size UASs. Previously, these airmen came from the imagery analyst or career enlisted aviator communities. While the sensor operator needs to have an aviation mentality, he or she does not need to be aircrew rated. As a result, the Air Force established a new UAS sensor operator career field.

The service recognizes the need to synchronize its UAS manpower requirement across the force. By 2010, this force will include more than 15,000 pilots, sensor operators, intelligence coordinators, and maintainers. The majority will support Predator and Reaper operations.

An Australian Scan Eagle hurtles into the skies over Iraq from its launcher. Coalition UAVs have played a huge role in the wars in Southwest Asia. (USAF photo by A1C Jonathan Snyder)

The large-size UAS inventory currently consists of just one aircraft: the Global Hawk. The RQ-4 will obtain its manpower and experience from airmen currently working in the manned, high-altitude ISR mission area.

Intended to replace the U-2, Global Hawk flies at 60,000 feet for some 30 hours. It has been deployed routinely since 2001 and logged more than 25,000 combat hours, despite not having entered initial operational test. As a spiral development program, Global Hawk has been able to provide long endurance ISR capability sooner than a conventional acquisition program.

While the current Global Hawk provides EO, IR, and radar imagery, the Air Force is also outfitting it with a signals intelligence sensor. And, in response to conditions in Afghanistan, the Air Force is equipping Global Hawk as a battlefield airborne communications node, allowing real-time sharing of voice and data communications in the harsh, mountainous terrain.

Global Hawk highlights the value the Air Force sees in shifting some ISR missions to unmanned platforms. With the airframe unmanned, its endurance can be exploited to maximize its effectiveness. For example, if it were tasked to collect information on refugees in the Darfur region, a single U-2 sortie could remain on station for three hours and map approximately three percent of the area. By comparison, Global Hawk would map 58 percent of the area during 20 hours over the area of interest.

A Change in Conduct

As promising as this capability is, the Air Force wants to get more from the large UAS inventory of the future. Large UASs may soon take over the battle management command and control missions currently performed by the manned E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint STARS aircraft.

There will be questions about whether an unmanned platform is the optimum way to keep C2 capabilities forward and over the fight. Flying larger UASs as air refueling, airlift, or air mobility platforms may create similar debates, but the Air Force flight plan clearly sees these mission areas as in the UAS future.

SSgt. Delvin Baquering (l) and A1C Aaron Weddington load a Hellfire missile onto a Predator at Creech AFB, Nev. (USAF photo by SrA. Brian Ybarbo)

Less controversial, with Global Hawk leading the way, are future large UASs conducting missions such as ground moving target indication similar to the Joint STARS, electronic warfare, Sigint, or other traditional ISR collection functions.

The Air Force’s UAS flight plan may disturb some, but it clearly offers promise to others. The service needs the roadmap to address significant changes in the operational environment.

With nearly the smallest force it has had since 1947, the Air Force may have its highest operational tempo in history. Airmen are engaged in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa, and they provide global mobility and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The conduct of air operations has changed. Previously, fighter and bomber crews were given a target and they executed against that target. For example, during Operation Desert Storm, crews received new targets only 20 percent of the time. During Allied Force, this doubled to 43 percent and then more than doubled again during Iraqi Freedom—in which more than 90 percent of all aircrews received new targets after takeoff.

The ability to find-fix-finish a target quickly is central for today’s Air Force. Data links and an agile command and control network are cornerstones of this improvement. In 2000, roughly 400 Air Force platforms had data links. Today, more than 3,400 platforms are connected by data links. But data links are only meaningful if they provide accurate and timely information.

While the US has more than 160 UAS programs in development, worldwide, there are more than 400 in production or design. Countries such as France, Germany, and Britain may be expected to invest in this technology—but some may be surprised to learn that Pakistan has twice as many as Russia.

Future Challenges

The Air Force’s roadmap is a key way for airmen to demonstrate leadership in unmanned flight. Within the joint team, such leadership is critically needed. In 2007, the combatant commanders identified 99 critical capabilities gaps and DOD determined that unmanned systems could address 17 of them.

More than just what the service will do, the roadmap describes how and when key actions will be accomplishments. In meeting the vision of its flight plan, USAF recognizes that it faces a number of challenges. Manning and training the force is one. Integrating unmanned vehicles into the national airspace structure within the US is another.

Over the years, the onboard pilot has been responsible for avoiding midair collisions by following a see-and-avoid guide. Even when flying under air traffic control instructions, this basic requirement remains in force.

With the pilot on the ground, the Air Force is exploring advanced, reliable sense-and-avoid technologies to replace the see-and-avoid requirement. Some of this technology already exists with commercial aircraft using a traffic collision avoidance system. TCAS relies on an aircraft seeing another aircraft’s transponder, identifying its location and associated altitude. Future sense-and-avoid technology can build on this but must include aircraft not equipped or not using a transponder.

Another challenge for the Air Force is communications. Unmanned aircraft work well when there are assured communication links for both control and downloading the data. With medium and large UASs operating beyond line of sight of their control stations, satellite communications are required.

The Predator and Reaper rely on commercial, unencrypted links, which could potentially be intercepted by someone. Much of the UAS control is also done on Ku frequency bands, a frequency intended for satellite control, not air-to-ground communications. As a result, UAS control is a low priority—and the Air Force risks not having assured access.

A Wasp III BATMAV. (Photo by Bobbi Zapka)

To overcome these problems, the Air Force recognizes that the future Wideband Global SATCOM satellite or similar technologies can provide the secure communication links. In addition, the service is looking at potential surrogate satellite networks using high-altitude aircraft, such as lighter-than-air vehicles, to provide a data link network node.

In addition to providing redundancy for communication links, the surrogate satellite concept can allow for a network to be established to fit a contingency and potentially allow for higher data rates as the systems will operate in a direct, line-of-sight mode.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is one the Air Force cannot remedy in a roadmap—changing the culture to accept unmanned capabilities as equals to those provided by manned aircraft.

A cadet candidate to the Air Force Academy commented after a recent visit that the cadets were excited about the prospects of flying the F-22 or F-35. When the topic of unmanned aircraft came up, their tone switched to resigned acceptance that unmanned aircraft were inevitable.

Does the UAS Flight Plan mean the end of the aviator who takes to the skies and brings the fight to the enemy

“Undoubtedly no,” predicts retired Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, who once developed operational capability requirements for the Air Staff. Speaking about future unmanned systems, Leaf advised, “A mix of manned and unmanned platforms ensures we will have a human stake in the lethal business of war.”

Michael W. Isherwood, a retired USAF colonel and fighter pilot, is a contributor to the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Airpower for a Hybrid War,” appeared in the October issue.