An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator flies over the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, the first carrier to catapult launch an unmanned aircraft. (MC2 Timothy Walter/Navy)
Constrained budgets and a strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific region are among the forces shaping the Pentagon’s vision for unmanned systems over the next quarter century.
In the latest “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap,” Defense Department planners outline the steps they say DoD, industry and academia must take to affordably increase the military utility of unmanned systems through 2038.
The numbers and capabilities of unmanned systems in the air, on the ground and in the sea have increased dramatically over the past decade. But during that period, the report’s authors note, unmanned systems operated in relatively uncontested environments. In contrast, a strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific theater must contend with significant anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges. That will create a need for manned and unmanned systems to work more closely together, the authors say.
“Technological advances and military adaptation will result in merging unmanned systems from air, ground, and sea domains into teams of unmanned and manned systems,” the report says. Manned-unmanned system teaming “will be essential as DoD makes a shift in geographical priorities toward the Asia-Pacific region while retaining emphasis on the Middle East. A force of the smaller, more agile manned-unmanned systems of the near future will enable DoD to mobilize quickly to deter and defeat aggression by projecting power despite A2/AD challenges.”
But the innovations needed to better integrate manned and unmanned systems will have to be developed within a conservative fiscal environment, the report says. One approach the report offers for coping with austere budgets is “selective innovation.”
“Future mission needs will have to be met by funding capability improvements that exploit existing systems with innovative improvements to their indigenous technologies. This approach might be as simple as modifying a sensor to improve data flow or applying standard message set architectures to improve interoperability,” the report says, and advocates the development of new concepts of operations (CONOPS): “In particular, the ability of unmanned assets to take risks that would not be taken with manned assets opens up new CONOPS, such as low-cost, expendable systems that trade armor and stealth for quantity. In other words, a fleet of low-cost, disposable platforms could survive through attrition rather than through expensive, exquisite capabilities.”