The robot's got your back: integrating manned and unmanned aircraft operations is the next priority for UAV development.
Sound like science fiction? It's not. A scenario like the one just described is just one of the many new roles being developed for UAVs.
Since the Vietnam War, UAVs have been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. As these pilotless aircraft are maturing, however, more and more missions that had traditionally been the sole purview of manned aircraft are migrating to UAVs. Indeed, the Pentagon's UAV roadmap for 2000-2025 specifically points to missions such as time-critical targeting, suppression of enemy air defenses, combat search and rescue, and even actual attack missions themselves. Over the next decade, as development of UAVs continues and their concepts of operation (CONOPS) evolve, manned and unmanned aircraft will operate differently to accomplish missions.
UAVs are stepping into new missions very rapidly. The US Air Force's Hellfire-equipped Predator, for example, has carried out attack missions in Afghanistan and, most recently, in Yemen, where it was used to destroy a vehicle carrying al Qaeda operatives. "The development is going very, very quickly," said Peter Vestergren, director of UAV programs at Saab (Stockholm, Sweden). "I don't think that anybody in the aerospace business thought that the Predator would be armed in the time span that it's been done."
Perhaps not, but the armed Predator is just the beginning of a whole series of new missions that are being examined for UAVs. The scenario described earlier, in fact, is in development already under the Airborne Manned/Unmanned System Teaming (AMUST) program. In 1999 the Boeing Co. (Mesa, AZ) was contracted by the US Army to develop a capability to control a UAV from the cockpit of an AH-64D Apache Longbow. Even before being put under contract, though, Boeing had demonstrated the foundations for such a capability, bringing in Army pilots to validate the concept. According to Bill Wallace, who was managing the program for the company at the time, the pilots liked it. "Up until that point," he said, "conventional wisdom had been that this teaming was a bridge too far, because the workload would just be horrendous, and crews couldn't deal with it."
Boeing's development of a special man-machine interface, though, made the workload issue evaporate, enabling the Apache pilot to control the UAV and its sensors with relative ease. This man-machine interface is also expected to find its way onto the RAH-66 Comanche and the UH-60 Black Hawk.
Even more advanced work on shifting UAVs into missions traditionally performed only by manned aircraft is being done at the US Air Force's UAV Battlelab (Eglin AFB, FL). One of these is aimed at employing a Predator UAV as a forward air controller (FAC) or killer-scout. "We've been working on this for a couple of years, back when the paradigm was an observation/reconnaissance platform, and nobody really wanted to talk about anything more than that," said Phil Tritschler the Battlelab's UAYFAC project manager. But the Battlelab forged ahead with the idea, and many of the concepts and capabilities proposed by Tritschler's team found their way into the Air Force's UAV roadmap. To illustrate how quickly development of these concepts is occurring, however, the UAV FAC project has already been outstripped by events. "Predator's being used for killer-scout operations right now," Tritschler noted.
But some of the other concepts his team considered, such as employing Predator as part of a combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) team, have yet to be put into action, mostly due to the low numbers of Predators available. "When the theater commander only has two of these things flying, they're held at the air-operations-center level," he said. As more Predators are acquired by the Air Force, though, he foresees giving tactical control of the UAV to the commander of a CSAR task force, instead of having all of the UAVs controlled at a higher echelon. That's not stopping Tritschler from moving ahead with the concept. His team has already outfitted a Predator with CSAR interrogators. "It's been proven, and we're ready to fly it," he said. "We're just standing in line, because Predator is very popular."
Another initiative being pursued by the Battlelab is called Little Weasel, which will demonstrate the military utility of integrating an electronic-intelligence (ELINT) capability on a UAV to support the suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD). The Little Weasel project calls for the incorporation of a HARM Targeting System (HTS) pod on a UAV, along with an Improved Data Modem, to take advantage of a UAV's persistence, or ability to loiter for long periods of time. "With both of those, we'll be able to identify threat emitters and transmit a SEAD message to any other aircraft with an 1DM capability," said Maj Scott McKinney, the Battlelab's Little Weasel project manager. Though only just getting started, the Little Weasel concept could be flying as early as this summer.
"We'd actually like to fly the UAV out on a range with some actual threat emitters and have another aircraft up there -- most likely an F-16C1 -- and we'd be able to share SEAD messages back and forth," McKinney said.
An even more ambitious UAV-based SEAD program, however, is already underway: the Loitering Electronic Warfare Killer (LEWK) advanced-technology concept demonstrator (ACTD), a program involving all four US military services (with the Air Force serving as the lead). Begun in 2001, the LEWK ACTD seeks to develop a UAV with the ability to deliver precision-guided munitions -- in this case, BLU-108 sensor-fuzed weapons -- and provide a jamming capability to augment the EA-6B Prowler, all at a unit cost of about $100,000. For the ACTD, the LEWK will be deployed from a CH53 helicopter, but the plan is to eventually get the UAV certified on a fighter aircraft. The idea is to have LEWKs, preprogrammed with target points as determined by the enemy's electronic order of battle, carried into a threat zone by a manned aircraft and released. The LEWKs would then fly in close to their targets for stand-in jamming and fly pre-programmed egress routes to a recovery point upon completion of the mission. In addition, the LEWK w ould provide an additional capability to strike time-critical targets that may pop up in the area. "If there's a time-critical target out there and we can meet the rules of engagement by employing the BLU-108s, we'll do that," said Col John Wilcox, US Air Force.
Again, the benefit to employing a UAV for this type of mission is the aircraft's persistence. "Putting a LEWK on a fighter that goes in at 500 knots and dropping it allows the LEWK to use all its fuel on station, rather than traveling to and from the site of interest," Wilcox said. The flight from Mazar-e-Sharif, for example, would take an average UAV three hours. The LEWK, Wilcox pointed out, gets there more quickly and can loiter longer.
But the LEWK ACTD is even more ambitious. Although the initial flights under the program have focused on controlling a single LEWK, Wilcox said, "We plan to have a swarm of LEWKs. We want to have one pilot and 50 LEWKs." Employing a swarm of UAVs, though, presents some challenges. Deploying the swarm requires a lot more carriage capacity than a fighter possesses, so a rack has been developed that could carry 18 LEWKs, with designs in place for a rack that could carry as many as 24. Controlling the swarm poses yet another challenge. The pilot, he said, could be anywhere -- in a ground-control station, in an EA-6B -- so long as he's got the laptop-based control system and a datalink. But Wilcox explained that the swarm concept is still a little way off. "We're going to crawl before we walk and walk before we run," he said. "After we get through one guy controlling one LEWK, we'll probably go to one guy controlling two LEWKs, then one guy controlling six LEWKs and see where we go from there." This isn't so diffe rent from the way manned aircraft are handled, Wilcox noted. "A lot of times manned platforms abort, and we have to retask other fighters and bombers to pick up their targets. It would be the same thing with LEWKs," he said.
The notion of a swarm of UAVs controlled by a single operator is not exclusive to the LEWK ACTD, though, and not even to the US military. Both Sweden and France, for instance, have been looking at the concept. Saab's Vestergren said, "We're definitely thinking of using the Gripen backseat for control, or as an 'airborne ground station,' for UAVs, particularly combat UAVs." He called working with UAVs a "natural extension of the Gripen," one that would mean not having to push the manned aircraft too far into hostile territory.
French firm Dassault (St. Cloud, France) is also exploring the swarm concept, using a Rafale fighter to control the company's Duc family of UAVs. "Within that family there are some conceptual studies about unmanned combat air vehicles, and obviously a part of that is the integration and the use of Rafale as a flight leader for UCAVs," said Dassault spokesman Yves Robins. Dassault's vision of the Rafale as a UCAV flight leader would dedicate that aircraft to that role.
A Bridge Too Far?
With the work going on aimed at developing new missions for UAVs and integrating them into the force as a whole, when are we going to see UAVs take on a greater role? As Boeing's Wallace put it, technologically, an expanded role for UAVs and teaming with manned aircraft is not "a bridge too far." Indeed, most everyone JED contacted on this subject agreed that the current level of technology is not the obstacle. "It needs to be fine-tuned," said Dassault's Robins. "It needs to be developed, but the technology is there:"
Saab's Vestergren pointed out that more time is needed for potential customers "to be more mature, to know how to use these systems in the best way." Robins agreed, adding that funding for such programs is also needed. "There is interest," he said. "So far it's a non-financed interest. It's a bit like a lot of fields in UAVs. Everyone knows that something is out there, but exactly what they want, what their strategy is, and so on takes time to get together."
In the US though, where funding is not as big a factor as it is in Europe, perhaps the biggest hurdle to the development of new roles for UAVs has been the human factor. According to a US Air Force spokesman based at Nellis AFB, NV, when UAVs were first introduced to exercises there, "nobody wanted to fly with a Predator."
Aversion to flying with UAVs takes time to overcome, but it is being done. "It's certainly going to require some exposure," said Jim Taylor, Predator program manager at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (San Diego, CA). He said that on all the deployments his company has done, pilots that have gotten to spend some time in the ground-control station have come away with more confidence in UAVs. "Really what we've done is create a system where the cockpit is just displaced from the rest of the airplane," he said. "There's still a pilot there controlling the UAV and answering for its movements. It's the same as what they're used to; it's just that the pilot doesn't happen to be in the airplane."
The UAV is only now beginning to see a glimmer of its full potential, and it goes far beyond acting simply as a reconnaissance drone. "We're exploring other innovative uses for UAVs. It is an evolving mission area," said Col W. Rhys Macbeth, commander of the UAV Battielab. "It should not be looked at as lust an ISR platform."
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|Author:||Rivers, Brendan R|
|Publication:||Journal of Electronic Defense|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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