WASHINGTON — For the current generation of unmanned systems to survive in contested environments, they need upgrades to situational awareness, automation and weapons, a major US Air Force research project has found.
The conclusions come from the latest round of studies by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), an independent federal advisory committee made up of 50 scientists and researchers who every year drill down on a series of topics the service has asked them to consider.
This most recent trio of studies, which launched in January, looked at how — or if — the Air Force should invest its research funding into upgrading unmanned systems, developing quantum computing technologies and how to build in cybersecurity for internal processors on existing and current platforms.
Of the three studies, the one with the most near-term impact focused on UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk, said Werner Dahm, a former chief scientist of the Air Force who serves as SAB chairman.
Radar warning systems, new munitions and communications gear to allow operations in GPS-denied situations would give the two backbones of the unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) fleets new life in contested environments, Dahm explained to reporters this week.
"They have enough size, weight and power to be able to run these systems, [although] time aloft will go down as you add weight to the system," Dahm noted. "The study has methodically gone through and looked at different classes of weapons and what could be carried.
Given the Air Force's plans to eventually retire the MQ-1 Predator fleet, modifying those systems was "not worthwhile," Dahm said. In fact, he said, the only use the studies found for Predators in the future is as "chum" — distractions to absorb fire from other aircraft.
Although final recommendations are part of the classified report, Dahm did say the study at least considered whether the RQ-4 should be armed and if the MQ-9 should be equipped with air-to-air weapons. Miniature munitions, which could be used to create flak in an area to defend against incoming surface-to-air weapons, was also studied.
While the hardware upgrades can boost performance with little development, software upgrades could have an even larger impact on the effectiveness of the systems.
Automation is one area the SAB explored, in particular if there are tasks such as automatic queuing that could alleviate stress on the operator. However, the SAB wasn't looking into the mythical flying, artificially intelligent death machine of science fiction movies, Dahm said.
"There are places where automation would alleviate operator load and allow the platforms to do things they cannot do today," he said. "The purpose of the study was not to see how far can we push automation in these platforms."
Software could also indirectly alter not just the systems themselves, but how they are operated. In fact, the biggest impact Dahm highlighted may come from a focus on modeling and simulation to figure out the best way to use upgraded MQ-9s and RQ-4s.
Developing those modeling and simulation software solutions is really the only way to design the tactics, techniques and procedures used by UAV operators in a contested environment, the study concluded.
It's the kind of development that should have happened years before, but the nontraditional way the unmanned systems were developed and pushed into the field meant that no one ever sat down and did the groundwork to model all potential scenarios.
"The ops tempo has been so high on the unmanned system side there really hasn't been the breathing room to step back and develop a lot of the modeling and simulation," Dahm explained. "Given how many of these platforms we have and the role that they play, in a more traditional evolutionary process you would expect to have the modeling and simulation tool there. It's just that the ops tempo has exceeded that. "
The SAB is now turning its gaze to its next project list, which is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. The three completed studies are being briefed at the Pentagon, with final reports due by the end of summer for a January released.
Don't expect to get too many details, however. While the quantum computing report may be released in a limited unclassified version, the UAV and cyber reports are likely to stay classified, Dahm said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.