Neither Manned Nor Unmanned: The Future Of Air Warfare Will Be About Teaming

May 13, 2020
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To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the demise of manned fighters are greatly exaggerated. Yes, there has been tremendous progress in the technologies needed to field sophisticated unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Yet, even with advances in computing power, artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy, we are not even close to achieving the cognitive abilities of a trained pilot and crew. The future of airpower is not either manned or unmanned, but both. The real question that needs to be addressed is the balance between these two. The answer to this question will be based on a deep appreciation for how best to use an expanding array of manned aerial systems, unmanned vehicles and air-delivered/air-breathing weapons in a future high-end air campaign. This new balance could reassert the dominance of airpower in high-end warfare, which has been challenged by advances in anti-access/area-denial capabilities.

In a recent appearance before the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk declaimed that “the fighter jet era has passed” and that the future belongs to “a drone fighter plane that’s remote controlled by a human, but with its maneuvers augmented by autonomy.” Musk is wrong about that, at least with respect to the next several decades. To date, UASs can perform fairly simple missions, often involving pre-programmed maneuvers supplemented by human operator intervention. The tactics and techniques of one-on-one air-to-air combat and the need for split second decision-making are beyond the capabilities of currently available AI programs. When we are discussing a future high-end conflict involving massive multi-platform air-to-air and air-to-ground operations occurring on half a continent, the challenge of substituting drones for manned platforms will be orders-of-magnitude more complex.

There is also the problem of connectivity. The demands of current drone operations can occupy an enormous fraction of a network’s available bandwidth. As one U.S. expert on airpower pointed out: “Today, we cannot even provide robust, reliable, assured connectivity among weapon systems across all domains, and that is fundamental to coordinating effective combat—whether a person is in the cockpit or not.”

The good news is that there has been tremendous technological progress when it comes to the capabilities of so-called smart weapons, UASs and manned combat aircraft. The U.S. military is deploying a generation of new air-delivered weapons with greater range, more sophisticated maneuvering capabilities, advanced sensors and targeting systems and different payloads. These will include network-enabled weapons that can be commanded while in flight, much like a UAS. UASs are being developed with a wide range of capabilities including ISR, communications, weapons delivery, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), and logistics support. Fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35 have demonstrated their ability to dominate in both air-to-air and air-to-ground warfare. Their combination of stealthiness, sophisticated sensors, and advanced networking will allow them to act as penetrating ISR and communications nodes.

Despite the fact that precision munitions and drones are becoming “smarter” and more flexible, the military cannot simply replace manned with unmanned for the high-end fight. Future battles in the air will be extremely intense and complex. Air forces cannot wait to degrade air defenses to achieve air superiority and conduct air-to-ground missions, as was the case in the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. They will need to employ a range of sophisticated tactics and techniques across multiple domains to disrupt and penetrate air defenses to attack critical targets from the outset of hostilities. This means they will need a mix of unmanned capabilities, including different types of drones, some of which enhance the unique attributes of manned platforms in a direct support role and others that are more independent, contributing to the conduct of air and multi-domain operations.

The emerging role for UASs is as an adjunct or support to manned platforms, what some have called an unmanned wingman. There have been a number of experiments and developmental programs that demonstrate the value of manned-unmanned teaming. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program is experimenting with Kratos’ XQ-58A Valkyrie. Lockheed Martin’s Have Raider program demonstrated the ability to control a combat-capable, unmanned F-16 working in formation with manned platforms. Boeing is currently working on the Airpower Teaming System as part of the Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program. And while not precisely a wingman, the company is also building the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueling drone.

There are three basic types of unmanned “wingmen.” They are distinguishable based on their sophistication (and therefore, by their cost) as well as the role they play in enhancing the capacity of manned systems. The first are expendables, essentially relatively small, low-cost (about $2 million a copy) air vehicles, launched from fighters or bombers and intended to extend their performance by serving as a weapons truck, jammer, air defender or forward sensor node. The second are attritables, larger and more expensive platforms (on the order of $10-20 million per) than expendables and designed to operate alongside manned platforms to expand the overall operational reach and capacity of air forces. The third are survivable UASs, to include optionally manned aircraft. These are larger, much more sophisticated and significantly more expensive ($50 million and above) than the other two classes of UAS wingmen because they are intended to conduct the same mission set as their manned counterparts and return to base.  

While it is tempting to pursue a future based on a highly sophisticated and expensive unmanned wingmen, this is not the best approach. Not only is such a strategy likely to be unaffordable, but it depends on advances in AI, autonomy, machine learning and networking that are likely only attainable decades from now.   

A better strategy for manned-unmanned teaming will exploit the advances of each type of wingman. Emphasis should be given to exploiting the virtues of expendable UASs that will provide manned platforms with additional ISR and strike capabilities beyond those available with precision weapons. The larger, more complex and expensive attritable UASs would penetrate ISR and electronic attack platforms or, in a standoff role, serve as persistent communications nodes and aerial refuelers. The combination of survivable, penetrating platforms coupled with a proliferated array of expendable UASs and backed up by a limited number of attritable (and in the future, survivable) UASs in supporting roles will result in a networked battle force capable of winning in a future large-scale, high-intensity air campaign.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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