1.) Drones will grow up to become droids- That’s right, autonomy is not only on the way, in many ways it exists today. Over the last decade or two, drones have been like infant children, requiring hand holding and constant human interaction to operate and survive. In the near future drones will be treated like adolescent children, allowed only to walk to the corner store and back alone, checking in at least one time with their parents nervously waiting at home. As drones grow up and continue to evolve their ability to think for themselves will increase and our comfort level and trust in them will grow as well. Much like teenagers, we will soon allow drones to go out till curfew and make their own decisions on how they spend their time, albeit adhering to a strict list of rules and instructions dictated to them by their parents before leaving home. Then, in the not to distant future, possibly a couple of decades or less, drones will metaphorically graduate high school and go off to college, and in doing so they will become almost totally independent. With all the values and norms their parents instilled in them they will be able to make important choices on their own and will learn together as a class through their individual and collective pitfalls and triumphs, all for the benefit of the greater good. At this point we can no longer call them drones, they will be called something like droids as they will possess enough artificial intelligence needed to think for themselves when it comes to accomplishing their individually assigned objectives and overall common goals.
Over the last decade and a half we have lived with mainly man-in-the-loop drone operations, similar to the adolescent drones mentioned above. In many ways calling unmanned weapon systems like the Predator or Reaper robots is fairly dramatic as really they are remote-controlled planes on steroids more than anything else. Today, with evolving systems like the Q-4 Global Hawk and X-47B UCAS-D concept, along with others like the RQ-170 Sentinel, semi-autonomous drones are coming of age. Instead of the almost complete hands-on remote control of the past these second generation systems are highly automated and are controlled in a point and click desktop fashion, the drone asking permission from its handlers for certain actions instead of its handlers actually telling the drone every single thing it must do. The next large leap in drone autonomy will see almost fully autonomous drones become a reality. These aircraft will be able to identify enemy targets of opportunity and make tactical decisions almost completely on their own, or even as a collective group. We often hear about the legalities behind such a capability- who is liable if the drone shoots a school bus instead of a SCUD missile launcher etc? Regardless of the possible legal or sociological hurdles that currently exist in regards to such highly automated unmanned combat systems, the honey is just too sweet for militaries around the world not to take a bite, and once they realize just how sweet this capability is they will become totally addicted to it going forward. In other words, fully autonomous unmanned combat aircraft are not only inevitable but I believe they will become operational in droves much sooner than many are currently willing to admit, leaving the pilot, and in most cases the system monitors, totally out of the loop once and for all…
2.) Drones will get bigger- No longer will “large drones” be considered the size of manned jet fighters or corporate jets. Instead, drones will grow to giant proportions in both mass and dimension. Things like communication satellites may become unnecessary and risky investments because much more cost-effective and flexible drone alternatives will exist. These light but massive drones carrying similar relay systems as their satellite predecessors will be able to stay up in the stratosphere for weeks or months at a time, running on hydrogen fuel or the sun itself.
On the surveillance side of the equation, massive airships or large winged drones could loiter over militarily contested villages or towns for days at a time. Using advanced sensors such as the all seeing “Gorgon Stare” system still in development, these large-scale, long endurance drones could provide a pan-optic all seeing eye in the sky once only relegated to the realm dystopian science fiction novels. One loitering drone could optically cover a single town for days, allowing for surveillance on an unprecedented level. These systems could even be used over our very own metropolitan areas, providing on demand real-time video of any area under its persistent gaze. Further, such a system could provide a continuous record of who was where and when. Theoretically, if someone was arrested for robbery, a system like the Gorgon State perched on an unmanned airship or a large-scale orbiting drone could provide footage after the fact of the robbery location itself, as well as imagery used to corroborate a suspects alibi. The whole system is passive, and because it constantly looks everywhere, when using the system’s archives in retrospect, you can look anywhere. It’s all about persistence, and big drones allow for exponentially more useful “orbit” durations.
On the heavier side of things, bombers and tankers will at first become optionally manned, and then totally unmanned. Global strike missions that currently see bomber crews fly 30+ hour round-robin trips from the continental US to their targets abroad and back will no longer be a physical challenge as there will be nobody on-board these bomber platforms to become fatigued. Even the nuclear strike role will be turned over to bomber drones. The reality is that medium and long-range autonomous weapons have been the corner-stone of America’s nuclear triad for the better part of a century via nuclear tipped ballistic and cruise missiles. How is operating unmanned delivery vehicles any different from this really? Many would say that the best part about a nuclear manned bomber is that there is a human responsible for such a dangerous weapon system. Yet militarily the fact that these systems are still manned can be seen as their greatest weakness on multiple levels. Additionally we will see tanker aircraft turn into drones, staying on station for long periods of time, passing gas to their smaller drone brethren and manned systems at will. This would be the perfect mission for Boeing’s blended wing body concept that has been in slow development on and off for the last decade and a half or even for a tanker version of America’s next stealth multi-role bomber.
3.) Drones will get smaller- The days of thinking of “small drones” as those that fit in a Navy SEAL’s backpack are numbered. Soon we will see operational drones the size of a grapefruit, then the size of a dragonfly, and eventually, maybe in 30 years time, we won’t be able to see them at all. As drones shrink so will the weapons they carry. Today we see the sub 50lb smart munitions being deployed on smaller drones, yet these cutting edge micro-munitions may prove to be comparatively colossal in time. Eventually miniature UAVs will use sub 5lb guided bomblets and even guided bullets to deal death from on high. Even smaller drones will eventually be able to take out the enemy by “biting” or “injecting” them with poison, both lethal and non-lethal, very similar to the ways in which insects have operated for millions of years. On the sub-micro end of things nanites or nanobots, which are microscopic robots, will be able to infiltrate computer circuitry or even the human circulatory system in large numbers and conduct repairs or cause catastrophic damage. In the end the smallest drones may end up being the most useful and dangerous of all, able to act like life saving mini-surgeons living or our bloodstreams or as self replicating weapons of mass destruction for which the only defense may be, dare I say it, anti-nanobot nanobots! We have all seen just how effective computer software viruses can be when used as weaponry, now just imagine if the computer hardware itself could be infected on a microscopic level with mechanical viruses in the form of nanobots. The same could theoretically be done to the human body, instead of biological weapons of mass destruction based on human engineered super-viruses, micro-mechanized based weaponized viruses may be the alarming norm of the not to distant future. It is bewildering to think that the world’s most lethal future wars may be fought on a microscopic battlefield…
4.) Drones will look more like organic species- Eventually you will not need expensive and imperfect stealth technology to infiltrate an enemy’s territory, instead you will send robotic birds, fish, and even insects to do so. A replica bird carrying miniaturized information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) equipment would be able to operate over enemy territory with close to total impunity. Further, bird or fish-like drone imposters would be even more effective and survivable than than their traditional counterparts by being able to operate in flocks and schools just like their organic cousins without drawing any extra attention to themselves.
On the tiny side of things, mechanized dragonflies and mosquitoes will become the ultimate tools of clandestine warfare. Able to penetrate almost any structure, these tiny drones could be used to literally look and listen in on the enemy’s most sensitive conversations without being detected or requiring risky planting before such a meeting took place. Further, these types of mechanical micro-insects will be able to track an enemy high value target by simply attaching to their vehicle or clothes. Even machinery and computer networks could eventually be infiltrated with tiny mechanical spiders, still far larger than the aforementioned nanobots, that could wreak havoc on hardware from inside the computers themselves.
Finally and the most sinister of all, mosquito, wasp, or even ant like drones could use their organic pseudo-pedigree in deadly ways, injecting the enemy with poison even while they are fast asleep. What at first would seem like a harmless series of bug bites would soon turn out to be a death sentence. With this insect like drone technology there will no longer be a need to blow up a building with a Hellfire missile in order to kill a single high value target inside. Instead war-fighters could just drop a swarm of mechanical mosquitoes over the building in question and proceed to deal death with microscopic accuracy and finesse.
These tiny drones represent the ultimate in low collateral damage stealth weaponry. Yet the technology also represents a massive threat to our forces as well. How do you adequately protect the common soldier, yet alone people like the President or other highly important figureheads when just a drone-mosquito bite could mean certain death? Once this technology gestates, what once were traditionally safe havens, such as inside known structures or surrounded by security personnel, will no longer be considered so. The only true defense against such an insidious capability would be to live within totally sealed structures at all times. What I am trying to say here is that this type of micro-drone, insect-like technology, once developed, has the ability to change the way we live totally, and if it were to fall into the wrong hands it could be incredibly dangerous.
5.) Drones will work in swarms- When it comes to mother nature if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Power in numbers is a concept as old as life itself. By traveling and hunting in packs, flocks, schools, or swarms even the most marginal of species have been able to survive and in some cases flourish throughout the ages. When it comes to swarms, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and this concept translates no differently in regards to drones. By working in swarms, drones can maneuver dynamically on the battlefield to overwhelm and catch the enemy off-guard, and by doing so they can punish their weaknesses to the maximum extent possible.
On a basic level, the swarm concept can be seen everyday in the way our modern manned military generally fight. A platoon, company and battalion exist because working in units and together as a group makes a single soldier’s battlefield effectiveness multiply exponentially. Additionally, just like in mother nature, there is safety in numbers. The same can be said for the way we have traditionally fought in the air, where fighter jets often fly into battle in a section of two or a division of four aircraft. Further, these small groups of jets are often participatory in larger strategic formations that work together to obtain a series of objectives. In the future, drones, traditionally viewed as “lone wolf” assets, will operate similarly, yet even on a more efficient level than their manned counterparts. Why drones are so ripe for the swarm concept is that once they are all “talking” to each-other on the same data-link network, their ability to coordinate and affect the battlefield based on the continuous flow of information from sensors both on and off-board each platform is almost instantaneous. This will allow swarms to act so fast that the enemy’s decision cycle is shattered and their command and control capabilities are deemed ineffective with dealing with the such a group’s lightning fast reflexes.
Being that drones do not have human life aboard allows them to be truly expendable. This fact leads to an additional possibility when it comes to drone swarms, in that we can begin to build lower cost and less capable drones that are intended to be used in mass from the outset. So instead of equipping each drone with a state of the art sensor suite and electronic warfare system, defense contractors can design and build drones that are cheap and totally ineffective on their own, but when used in a swarm and networked together their seemingly inferior “distributed” capabilities will far eclipse that of any single weapons platform alone. This will be especially true in terms of sensor fidelity and tactical flexibility. Further, if say 40% of a drone swarm is destroyed in combat the actual loss in sensor fidelity and mission effectiveness may be far less than 40% and the remaining units could continue to fight to their maximum potential without skipping a beat. Additionally, not every drone in a swarm needs to be identical. Some could be specifically shooters, while others could possess network nodes or key sensors. Similar to a bee hive where there are a few “classes” of bees which execute entirely different jobs in order to support and strengthen the community as a whole, man-made drone swarms could be designed in a similar fashion. This would allow for cheaper more expendable drones and for a more dynamic mix and match swarm capability that can be tailored to the mission at hand. In many ways large groups of networked drones are the ultimate in smart and persistent weaponry, possessing all the efficiencies of a hive mind and the incredible resilience of a swarm but on an incredibly technologically lethal level.
Drone swarms will not only take lives but they will also save them. When it comes to search and rescue, especially over the vast expanses of the world’s oceans, drone swarms will be able to cover a much larger area much faster when compared to current manned platforms. Literally, a couple dozen fairly inexpensive drones could be launched by a ship or even an aircraft (see thought #9) and those drones could search massive swathes of ocean in an attempt to find a proverbial “needle in a haystack.” As contacts of interest are found, the drones could notify a single operator who can then vector one of the drones in for a closer look while the rest of the swarm continues hunting for their target in distress. Only when the actual target of interest is found would more lives have to be put at risk and costly recovery aircraft be put to use to rescue those in need.
Drone swarms have the ability to totally change the way we fight conflicts. I find the concept’s possibilities absolutely outstanding and one of the most exciting facets of drone warfare and the future of air combat as a whole. The truth is that this concept has been proven in nature by some of the most resilient species this planet has ever hosted, so why would man-made unmanned air vehicle swarms be any different? The more the US and our allies invest into this budding technology the better, at least in my opinion…
6.) Drones will inhabit space on an unprecedented level- Some may think that this statement is a non-starter as satellites were in many ways the world’s first drones. Where I see the line forming between traditional uninhabited orbital platforms such as reconnaissance satellites and drones is by an unmanned platform’s ability to manipulate other orbiting systems dynamically or in their ability to affect a terrestrial target militarily with kinetic or non-kinetic weaponry, as well as the overall reusability of the weapon system. What may be in retrospect the “Wright Flyer” of this emerging new realm of space drones is the highly publicized but little understood Boeing X-37B. This reusable mini-spaceplane has a reconfiguration payload bay about the size of pickup truck bed and could theoretically be used for any of a plethora of new technologies, you can read about some of those possibilities here. At the same time, other white-world drone-like orbital space programs are popping up fast, many of which are seem quite benign at first glance but offer serious military potential with simple modifications. For instance, DARPA’s “Phoenix Program,” which will see space junk turned into large communications relays via the deployment of small and maneuverable micro satellite parasites, called “satlets,” which could theoretically de-orbit space junk or commandeer it for other purposes. These same “satlets” could also take old satellites to a tender for refueling or even repair. This capability combined with NASA’s DEXTER android-like remote manipulator system could literally put astronaut repairman’s hands virtually on a satellite in need.
Although not found in DARPA’s “Phoenix Project” press materials, it is clear that if you can do the things mentioned above with friendly or abandoned satellites than you could disable, de-orbit or even capture an enemy’s satellites as well. In other words, DARPA may be creating an incredible low-earth orbit space custodian and tow truck of sorts with their “satlet” drones, but at the same time they also may be creating the ultimate anti-satellite weapon, one which does not create thousands of pieces of deadly space junk like its crude “kinetic” fore-bearers. Orbital space debris caused by a traditional “hit to kill” anti-satellite weapons can harm even the very user’s orbiting capabilities as well as the enemy’s.
Although DARPA’s Phoenix program and the X-37B are promising, with every new capability there will eventually be a countermeasure, which begs the question- could we one day see near space filled with “satlets,” both of the offensive type mentioned above and of a defensive type, deployed to guard our critical military satellites from marauding enemy “satles?” I think it’s not only possible but probable.
Then there is the weaponization of space in a more traditional form. Considering that the DoD is obsessed with “time-sensitive-targeting” and cutting down the “kill chain” (the time it takes to positively identify and blow up an enemy target), the weaponization of inner space is inevitable. Being able to park a handful of orbiting arsenal ships with small but precise weaponry is a dream come true when it comes to destroying time sensitive targets and especially those of the high-value-target variety. A cruise missile can take over an hour to fly some 500 miles, whereas a munition launched from space could be on target in a matter of minutes. Further, such a weapon does not even have to feature a warhead but can be a kinetic projectile alone. Just the sheer momentum and associated shock-wave of a hardened aerodynamic projectile de-orbiting and hitting a target on the ground can be enough to destroy a decent sized building or underground bunker. This is ideal for targets where collateral damage is a major issue, such as when you are taking out a “HVT” in friendly or semi-friendly urban territory. Regardless of what such a system would look like it is clear that the “holy grail” of time sensitive targeting currently exists in space, at least until hypersonic cruise missiles are tested to be effective and fielded in relevant numbers. Yet even then there are certain benefits to “space to ground” weaponry that will be tough to compete with by any inner-atmospheric weapon…
7.) Drones will become the manned fighter’s future wingman- It is certain that high-tech manned combat aircraft will exist for at least the next half century. Due to this fact there will undoubtedly be more integration directly between manned and unmanned platforms. As the effectiveness of modern fighter aircraft are highly limited by their weapons payload and range they have to fly in multi-aircaft formations in order to leverage tactical synergy and to maintain persistence over the battlefield. Although these multiple aircraft strike packages are the key to winning any protracted future air war, since the latest manned aircraft are prohibitively expensive, especially those of the high-performance stealth variety, international fighter inventories will continue to shrink relentlessly. Although these new 5th generation fighter aircraft are deemed more survivable and more effective than their fourth generation predecessors, they can only carry so many bombs and so much gas on a single mission, and a single formation of four F-35s may equal close to 10% of some NATO country’s total fighter force in the near future. Further, each priceless asset, no matter how capable, can only be in one place at one time. A partial solution to these issues and other ones as well will be stealthy drones that are “tethered” directly to a single manned fighter or to a formation of manned fighters.
This symbiotic relationship where drones will accompany fighters into battle will allow the manned fighter pilot to direct his or her own drones to do many actions once reserved only for human wingmen, and in some cases they will be directed to execute maneuvers so risky that historically no manned airframe would be put at risk doing so. Drones “attached” to a manned fighter formation could be used to simply shuttle extra bombs and missiles along on a mission, or for example they could be directed to push forward toward the team’s objective in an attempt to destroy the enemy’s air defenses and survey the target area while their human masters lag far behind over safer territory. Once the tethered drones sanitize and reconnoiter the target area, their sentient wingmen can push into the area to complete their attack mission.
In an air to air environment a wingman drone could be used to simply shuttle large stocks of beyond visual range air to air missiles along for the mission, a commodity F-22 pilots seem to never have enough of. Tethered drones could also be used attack an enemy flight from a different vector than that of its master, both manned and unmanned aircraft working together to surprise, outwit or even bait an enemy formation. In certain instances they could even be ordered to engage a completely different set of enemy aircraft on their own, without their master’s micromanagement. Finally, a drone, which traditionally would possess substantially longer range than its manned counterpart, will be able to stay on station while their master goes and refuels and visa-verse. This way the human pilot can stay in the fight via the data-linked drone and its sensors while technically outside of the operating area for refueling.
A more autonomous concept of drone and manned combat aircraft cooperation could be a scenario where an individual pilot or flight of pilots may not have their own individual drones to control, but they can request missiles on demand and leverage a persistent sensor picture of shared drones orbiting over the front lines. In other words, a flight of F-22 pilots could act as battle managers, using the forward deployed drones’ off-board sensor picture and missile stocks at will. Once an engagement request from a manned fighter was “fulfilled,” the drone could return to its perch on high awaiting the next request. Death on demand via stealthy, high endurance sensor nodes and arsenal ships packed with beyond visual range air to air missiles. Simply put “tethered” and “On demand” drones would introduce a massive force multiplier and new level of efficiency onto the battlefield and would represent a total wildcard for enemy forces to deal with. Additionally, this type of accompanying drone concept would solve the ever-present issue of dwindling fighter inventories as well as the limitations in range and payload inherent to aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
8.) Cruise missiles will become dumb non-suicidal drones- Modern air, submarine and sea launched cruise missiles are America’s weapon of choice when it comes to the opening strikes of any serious shooting war. Missiles like the BGM-109 Tomahawk and AGM-158 JASSM offer incredible capabilities at almost no risk to the user, the problem is that they are incredibly expensive and can only be used once. A single top of the line Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) can cost almost $1.5M a pop and the air launched JASSM costing as much as $750k per copy. Even in a relatively small, and some would say unnecessary conflict like Operation Odyssey Dawn, aimed at overthrowing Gaddafi in Libya, would see over 150 Tomahawks fired in anger by US forces. These stocks would cost well over $225M to replace, not cheap by any means, but everything is relative in the world of modern military weaponry. Interestingly enough, one of the cheapest components in these cruise missiles is the munitions themselves. So basically a military is paying a million and half dollars to deliver a warhead that costs a few thousand dollars. Then consider that the full combat range of these weapons, around 1000 miles in the case of the Tomahawk, is rarely fully utilized in real-world combat scenarios. Yet surely these high-tech cruise missiles are less expensive than losing a $30M stealth drone, or even worse, a $150M manned stealth fighter, especially at the very start of an offensive when missions are usually aimed at dismantling the enemy’s air defense capabilities, right? Well currently yes, but there may be a better way of doing business in the future, and that better way may just come in the form of optionally reusable cruise missiles.
In a case like Libya, the nation’s main population centers, majority of strategic targets and thus major air defense components are located close to the coastline, which is common to many of America’s possible adversaries around the globe. This means that a Tomahawk launched 200 miles off the coast of the country in question would only utilize maybe one-third, to one half, of its total range by the time it detonates on its target. In theory, these missiles retain enough fuel at the time of their impact to easily return to allied territory to be recovered and reused again if they were designed to do so. Alternatively, if needed they could continue to fly one way missions to a target located deep in enemy airspace and blow themselves to smithereens as they would not have enough fuel to return to a safe recovery area anyway. In other words, optionally disposable cruise missiles make a tremendous amount of sense compared to the strictly disposable ones we use today. Further, if the missile could utilize sub-munitions instead of destroying itself it would be able to use any variety of loads depending on the target set and could even be able to attack multiple targets on a single mission. This would be especially useful against soft “area” targets like surface to air missile sites or motor-pools and other highly defended unfortified structures and material. Once again, such a system would be modular in nature and would retain the option to be packed with as much explosive material as possible and sent to hit a hardened structure almost 1,000 miles from its launch point if requested. The bottom line is that I believe the definition of drone and of expendable cruise missile is going to begin to blur, especially as more expensive technology is loaded into current single use cruise missile designs and cheaper but more capable technology continues to evolve from current drone research and development. Eventually the two concepts will meet in the middle when it comes to high-risk and first strike weaponry and relatively cheap and optionally reusable missiles will take the place of the Tomahawks and Storm Shadows of today. Meanwhile, large single use missiles will sport hypersonic cruise capability, and due to their astronomical cost they will be used to hit only the most imperative and time sensitive of targets just minutes after launch.
9.) Drones will increasingly rely on nontraditional motherships- When it comes to flying there is no more precise pilot in the world than a computer. Its the upsetting but honest truth. Today almost all modern fighters and even airliners use computers to interpret a pilot’s commands into actual control surface manipulation. Seeing as drones, by their very operationaly nature, do not put aircrew lives at risk, whatever they lose in “seat of the pants” ability can be made up for in expendability, for some missions at least. Over the years there have been experiments conducted where small, fighter sized aircraft, usually highly compromised in design, have been tested in a “parasite” concept, where they would launch and recover from a much larger flying platform. Zeppelins of early 20th century experimented with this and so did the USAF with the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin and larger aircraft during the dawn of the jet age. The problem is that to safely launch and recover an aircraft from another aircraft requires computer like precision, both for the host platform and especially when it comes to the smaller aircraft being launched or recovered from it. Due to such a concept’s inherent design tradeoffs and general lack of safety, utilizing manned aircraft in such a manner has been tossed on the ash heap of aerospace history.
Fast forward to the last decade where navigational hardware and related software has proven that an unpiloted aircraft can reliably tank from another aircraft utilizing the challenging “hose and drogue” means of transferring fuel and they can even land on an aircraft carrier reliably. Both practices have long been considered as the most challenging operations an aviator could face. With these feats in mind, there is nothing to say that drones, utilizing advanced software and navigational hardware, cannot mate and de-mate from a large, more stable flying platform in mid-air. At first we will see “mothership” capability in one particular fashion, where a combat aircraft will launch drones inflight and the drone will subsequently recover back at a ground station or on a ship at sea or simply self destruct. Boeing has already announced that the Super Hornet may integrate a small UAV like Insitu’s compressed carry version of its popular Scan Eagle in the near future, but eventually we may see purpose-built motherships able to fly a swarm of drones thousands of miles from home right to the threshold of an enemy’s air defenses. At this point the mothership would release a small swarm of larger drones or a large swarm of smaller drones on their way. These drones would then work their way into enemy territory and once they have completed their objective, either autonomously or semi autonomously via line of sight control by the launching mothership, or have run out of fuel, they would recover at remote location or possibly back on the mothership aircraft itself.
Imagine a very unstealthy but long range B-52, or Boeing Blended Wing Body aircraft, with its cavernous bomb bays, flying thousands of miles with a quartet of stealthy jet powered drones compressed within. As it approaches the far reaches of the enemy’s detection capabilities it releases the stealthy swarm to go autonomously attack enemy air defenses and targets of opportunity. Once their fuel and weaponry has been spent they rejoin with the mothership and are captured via trapeze and pulled back into the big jet’s bays for the long trip back home. On the smaller side of things a single B-2 Spirit stealth bomber could release almost a hundred small drones that can work together to create havoc over enemy territory. Some may be configured as bombs, while others as sensor platforms or active jammers, the more valuable senor platforms and jammers recovering back at a friendly air base or being “caught” by ship out at sea once their mission concludes.
Aircraft carriers are probably the most well-known and traditional form of motherships, and they soon will operate large, fighter sized drones off their decks. Yet helicopter carrying destroyers, cruisers, amphibious landing ships, and Littoral Combat Ships will also get a major boost in drone technology and their utility as unmanned aircraft motherships will undoubtedly dramatically increase. In the past many people have dreamed up creative and downright dangerous ways to impart fighter like capabilities off the tiny decks of non-aircraft carrier surface combatants and even commercial ships. The Harrier originally was thought to have been capable of turning almost any ship into fixed wing combat aircraft carrier. Elaborate trapeze designs were concocted, such as the “Skyhook” system, but were deemed way to risky to be fielded operationally. Yet with the emerging unmanned systems of today, such a capability may have finally come to term.
Innovative new designs that are unbridled by the restrictions of manned flight will make their way to the decks of frigate sized ships and larger, and possibly even submarines. Small rotory wing drones such as the MQ-8 Firescout and even miniature tilt-rotor designs are beginning to show up on US Navy decks today. Yet in the future, even “tail sitting” turboprop designs such as the doomed XFY-1 “Pogo” fighter of the 1950s may make a major comeback. Being able to takeoff and land vertically is the name of the game when it comes to tight deck space aboard surface combatants, and manned aircraft like the Pogo, which could feature relevant range and payload, may be feasible now that the pilot can be removed from the cockpit. Instead, such unmanned systems will rely on the near perfection of automated flight control and navigational systems, most of which need no “vision” to operate and can launch and recover in much tighter places than their manned counterparts of yesteryear. Who knows, maybe in the not so distant future we may see an unmanned aircraft based on the F-35B that leverages the aircraft’s unique vertical deployment capabilities and is not plagued with the weight associated with a cockpit and life-support systems. Any of these or other larger, unmanned vertical takeoff systems could one day turn traditional surface combatants into UCAV motherships without being impacted by the current range, speed and payload limitations inherent with rotory winged designs. On the smaller side of things, small drones will be able to launch in swarms from even relatively diminutive sized combat ships for wide area surveillance tasks as well as armed force protection roles. Even bird sized, cheap, and disposable drones with a 40mm grenade sized charge implanted in them would be an incredible swarm weapon for dealing with equally swarming fast attack boats.
Aside from the aforementioned shipborne self defense swarm idea, the whole idea behind the mothership concept is to be able to be able to deploy and reuse ever more capable and highly valuable combat systems in a dreaded “area denial and anti access” (AD/2A) scenario, instead of destroying them on a one way trip. This is especially important when it comes to those unmanned systems that house expensive sensors, data-links, or sensitive technology. In the end motherships may be one of the best mediums for projecting sustainable and dynamic air-power over large distances without putting manned assets at risk, all the while keeping the enemy guessing as to where the next attack will come from.
10.) “Optionally Manned”drones will be replaced by “Virtually Manned” drones- We have heard a lot about “optionally manned” aircraft, ones where a pilot can fly the aircraft traditionally from within the cockpit or the aircraft can be controlled via a ground station or autonomously via on-board computer systems. Such technology has been around for some time in a rudimentary form via the “QF” drones used for both destructive and non-destructive weapons testing duties, although this technology pales in comparison to what may be on the horizon. Today we generally think of drone systems as either man-in-the-loop or semi-autonomous systems. Man-in-the-loop usually refers to small and medium sized drones similar to the Predator/Reaper series and below. These systems actually have an aircrew flying the aircraft and employing its weapons remotely, often times from thousands of miles away. Semi-autonomous drones are like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, X-47B UCAS-D and most likely the RQ-170 Sentinel. These aircraft are usually heavier, more advanced, high-automated and are more strategic in nature. Yet when it comes to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), a semi-autonomous, and soon to be totally autonomous (see #1) command interface works great for the opening days of a conflict but may have less utility when an enemy’s air defense system has been highly degraded and the majority of strategic targets have been destroyed. At this point during a protracted military conflict these highly automated unmanned systems lose some of their luster as complex duties such a close air support of troops on the ground and air defense, often times where aircrews are required to visually identify a possible enemy before firing on it, becomes the most requested duties for combat aircraft. Eventually, the artificial intelligence and software intrinsic to these drones will be able to detect, classify and engage unfriendly ground forces on their own, but still this requires a huge leap of faith, especially when friendly forces are operating in the area. So what would these expensive and highly capable drones do after the enemy’s defenses have been largely obliterated and the battle-lines are no longer clear?
During a sustained ground campaign, UCAVs could work as expensive arsenal ships, loitering high over a ground force or area of responsibility until a munition is “requested” by a forward air controller or other man-in-the-loop platform, or they could be “tethered” to a manned aircraft as discussed earlier. Although these are relevant possibilities, the fact that these high-end drones’ utility drastically decreases after the initial stages of a war is less than an ideal situation as it presses advanced UCAVs deeper into the realm of a “niche capability.” What would be perfect is if after all the most dangerous and critical missions have been accomplished, where an advanced UCAV’s stealth and autonomous automation were invaluable to completing a mission successfully, the aircraft could then support ground forces dynamically in the “virtually manned” role. Currently, man-in-the-loop systems like the Predator and Reaper suffer from “soda straw” situational awareness. The pilot essentially is locked into a forward field of view camera feed while the weapons systems officer is locked into an even more magnified representation of the world via the aircraft’s optical sensor turret. This is not ideal for providing air support or intercepting unidentified aircraft straying into the combat zone. What would be ideal is to have a real pilot “fly” an advanced optionally manned UCAV virtually in a fighter-like cockpit, thousands of miles from the battlefield. But how could this be possible?
The F-35’s cutting edge Distributed Aperture System (DAS) literally provides a 360′ sphere of optical situational awareness around the aircraft, allowing the pilot to see the world as it is around him or her even in the black of night. The system even allows the pilot to peer directly through the aircraft’s structure. In other words you can look right through the F-35’s floor when wearing the proper helmet mounted display that is being fed video the DAS system. DAS also “reads” the picture around the aircraft at all times, marking contacts seen by the jet’s radar, electronic surveillance system or even the DAS itself. It does this by taking the “staring” images from cameras mounted around the aircraft and stitching the images together into a 360′ sphere, and then projecting parts of that sphere into the pilot’s helmet depending on which way they are looking. At the same time DAS marks all the important targeting information over the imagery being seen by the pilot. It’s an amazing technology to have in a combat aircraft you are flying and fighting in, but what if you could use it while not flying in the aircraft at all?
As military communications capabilities evolve and data transmission bandwidth increases exponentially over time, it may be possible to install a DAS like system into a UCAV similar to Northrop Grumman’s X-47B now in testing. This way a pilot could literally be in a dark room, sitting in a standardized cockpit that would present all the same data that they would see while actually flying an aircraft in real time. Then, with their helmet mounted display being fed the drone’s DAS imagery in real-time, they could literally fly the aircraft virtually via high-speed datalink. The experience would be very analogous to flying an F-35 at night, although without the G forces or the inability to get up and go to the bathroom. If such a system were developed, the pilot may be even able to ditch the headgear all together. Instead they could virtually fly the UCAV in a high-fidelity dome simulator like facility, with an almost unrestricted field of view. At any time if the visual feed from the aircraft is degraded the UCAV could go right back to semi-autonomous mode until a solid link could be re-established.
As system like this would be especially useful when it comes to air to air combat in situations where rules of engagement are less than unrestricted and for close air support missions where it really helps to have “eyes in the cockpit.” Furthermore, airframe designers could finally build high-performance aircraft without any gravitational limits. No longer would air to air combat be relegated to the sub-9G realm. This would allow for enhanced survivability against maneuvering aircraft and when attempting to dodge incoming enemy missiles. Literally, the pilot could virtually dogfight under normal gravity while the airframe twists through the air under immense stress thousands of miles away. Further, if you do lose an aircraft it is just that, an aircraft. The cockpit facility and the pilot would remain far away from the battle, safe from harm. Further, this would mean there would be no need for a risky search and rescue missions to pluck downed aircrew out of dangerous places. Promisingly, all the pieces for such a system either exist today or are within the current realm of possibility, but clearly “optionally virtually manned” UCAVs would represent the ultimate in super maneuverable, super survivable and multi-role combat aircraft for the future.
Now that you have heard my ten thoughts on the future of drone warfare please let me know yours! Feel free to comment below or shoot me an email at Aviationintel@gmail.com!