WASHINGTON — The US Air Force on Tuesday rolled out its 20-year flight plan for small, unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

The Air Force has long discussed using swarms of miniaturized drones for attack and surveillance missions, but as its adversaries build more sophisticated weapons to counter traditional platforms, the service is responding with a new strategy to field tiny, flying bots to take down enemy defenses.

The strategy hinges on advancing three critical capabilities:

  • Teaming: two or more assets, operated by ground commanders, cooperating with one another.
  • Loyal wingman: a host platform, for instance a manned fighter aircraft, that directs multiple small UAS.
  • Swarming: a large number of minibots that work together in a collaborative, or "meshed," network.

Swarming technology changes the game for future warfare, according to Col. Brandon "BB" Baker, chief of the Air Force's remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) capabilities division.

At a rollout event at the Pentagon, Baker said commanders can use the swarm for a single objective, like a major attack, or disperse the bots across a region for 24/7 surveillance.

Swarming drone technology may even help the Air Force save money. Instead of shooting down a $20 million Reaper UAS or a $2 billion B-2 bomber in one go, the enemy would be forced to track and kill multiple, low-value targets.

"You've really kind of messed with the adversary's calculus in this case," Baker said. "Now they are going to be really challenged and the advantage comes back into our favor in terms of an economic advantage."

Any one platform can be taken down by a direct hit. But a drone swarm can take multiple hits, reconfigure and keep going, a capability Baker called "self-healing."

Several examples of experimental drone platforms were on display during the event: Raytheon's tiny Coyote, Boeing Insitu's RQ-21 Blackjack and Raytheon's Silver Fox.

Baker stressed that the effort is in its prerequisite phase, and that right now the Air Force is focused on modeling and simulation. He said he would love to see swarming drones operational by 2036, but that he can't project a timeline at this stage of the program.

Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, stressed that this technology is in its early stages, and that the flight plan released Tuesday is a "vision" for future air warfare.

"We do believe that small, unmanned aerial systems will be the cornerstone of Air Force ISR as we look through the next 20 years," Otto said.

Twitter: @laraseligman