At his most recent public engagement, the Air Force's top intelligence official gave a sobering reality check regarding the future of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) Aug. 2.
After reading comments published by the Air Force Times regarding UAVs in future conflicts and quoting U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander Gen. Roger Brady, some people have the impression the Air Force is backing away from its historical praise of UAVs such as the Predator and Reaper.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Given the high volume of reserve component units working in this emerging mission area, ROA staff participated in an exit interview with retiring Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force’s first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, who clarified the comments published in the Air Force Times.
The article quoted Gen. Brady saying, “Remotely piloted planes won’t be as effective in future wars as they are in
As Gen. Deptula points out, this statement recognizes today’s wars are being fought in uncontested airspace. Vulnerabilities exist, particularly in the datalinks between aircraft and ground controllers, in current remotely piloted platforms of which a more sophisticated enemy could take advantage.
Future wars could be fought in contested airspace where a slow-moving, unstealthy UAV prone to surface-to-air threats could be shot down.
The statements by both generals were meant to remind leaders that those engaging in warfare must be careful with unrestrained enthusiasm for unmanned aircraft. And while Gen. Deptula said that these maturing technologies must normalize across the spectrum of the Air Force’s core capabilities, that future use of UAVs in a different operational environment must adapt.
Any future UAVs must have modularity, varying degrees of autonomy and survivability.
Modularity means the aircraft must adapt to its environment. The closest example in today’s technology to describe modularity is the swept wing B-1 bomber, which can alter its wing stance depending on its flight parameters. Future modular technologies could be aircraft skin transforming based on light, speed or stealth requirements.
With regard to autonomy, UAVs are prone to datalink vulnerabilities. The more ground controllers communicate with the aircraft, the more vulnerable the aircraft are. Today, ground controllers give UAVs some level of autonomy when conducting combat air patrols, persistently hovering over an area, but they focus their control when the UAV must engage. Future UAVs might need the ability to reassess a target and react accordingly.
With regard to survivability, this boils down to speed and concept of operations. An MQ-1 Predator is no more than an overgrown snow mobile with missiles. Future UAVs need to be faster and stealthier. Those employing them also need to consider their concepts of operation. During World War II, hundreds of bombers were sent en mass against targets not only to ensure target success, but to protect each other. With a mass formation of UAVs concentrated in any given spot, there is a level of acceptable loss available.
To meet these future needs, though, the defense acquisition process based on organizations, processes and architectures formed during an industrial period of warfare need to change, Gen. Deptula said. In today’s world, in terms of threat capabilities and needs of commanders on the ground, the timeframe for providing capabilities has increase exponentially. The acquisition architecture needs to be more responsive, Gen. Deptula said.
If we were to make all the deliberate and informed decisions that today’s process requires for a requirement identified today, initial operating capability wouldn’t be until 2021, he said. “We cannot afford such a process.”