Unmanned Aerial Systems and the Evolving Air Power

Any future conflict will have an increased use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operating alongside manned aircraft and using artificial intelligence (AI) to manage their missions. The UAS, singly or in a swarm, will operate with minimal direction from the accompanying pilot as they scout ahead to map out targets, use electronic warfare capabilities to jam enemy signals, and launch their own missiles to carry out airstrikes and destroy targets — multiplying the effect a single pilot can have in battle. Existing technologies can already enable a formation of a manned aircraft controlling multiple unmanned aircraft, operating as a team. 

There are no rigid methods of using the UAS as the concepts of using UAS with manned aircraft vary. One proposed by United States Air Force Secretary visualises a manned aircraft operating with up to five UAS as the pilot uses the UAS the UAS as a formation to carry out tactical missions. Others concepts visualise just one “loyal wingman” to extend a fighter’s sensing range or potentially carry more weapons, while others have called for swarms of drones to go with each manned aircraft, each UAS performing different functions. Some are based around the drones being autonomous, functioning independently, while others envision the drones performing pre-programmed tasks as directed.

The ‘loyal wingman’, earlier called the Airpower Teaming System (ATS) by Boeing,  is being developed for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) among other users. MQ-28 Ghost Bat as the UAS is officially called utilises a modular mission package system in the nose where the entire nose of the aircraft can be removed and quickly swapped for another nose with a different set of equipment or armaments for various missions including combat, force reconnaissance and electronic warfare. It will operate in a semi-autonomous mode meaning that fighter pilots will not have to remotely control the manoeuvres of the drone.

The idea is to augment manned aircraft on combat missions by teaming UAS with it– what is being referred to as collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) by the United States Air Force.  In this, UAS are to accompany F-35s and the secretive sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance platform now in the works with the aim is to augment the fighter fleet with autonomous drones acting as decoys or scouts or even jam enemy signals or conduct their own strikes. The US concept varies that it visualises up to five UAs operating with a manned aircraft. However manned-unmanned teaming doesn’t have to have a “swarm” of UAVs around one piloted fighter and could be just a drone acting as a loyal wingman to a manned aircraft. 

The key to realising the full potential is the degree of autonomy provided to the UAS and use of artificial intelligence (AI) to create a capability that works as a huge force multiplier for existing manned combat aircraft. These UAS will not be flying with a pilot remotely at the controls in a traditional sense, like say an MQ-9 Reaper drone but will be directed in more of a point-and-click desktop or screen-top style interface. With the help of AI, they will be able to automate much of the process, leaving the pilots to concentrate on the big tactical picture instead of on constant small navigation and tactical tasks.

The USAF and RAAF are not the only ones developing and refining the loyal wingmen. Russia plans to team its Su-57 fifth-generation combat aircraft with an S-70 Okhotnik UAS with a second programme aimed at teaming the Grom UAS with the Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft. China on its part is developing the long-range FH-97 drone that is similar in mission – and appearance – to the U.S.-made Kratos (KTOS.O) XQ-58A Valkyrie as countries race to invest in “loyal wingman” drones to help protect pricier crewed fighter jets. FH-97 will be capable of  carrying different types of weapons and will have swarm and electronic warfare capabilities. Among other countries, South Korea plans to work on a manned-unmanned teaming system wherein one manned aircraft and three to four stealth UAS carry out missions simultaneously. The stealth UAS will be able to carry out missions on its own, such as surveillance, electronic warfare and kinetic attacks.

India’s CATS UCAV

India’s Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) Warrior project began in 2018 and was showcased during Aero India 2021. As per the information available in the open domain it will be a twin-engine autonomous, unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) intended to operate behind or alongside manned fighter aircraft to protect their tails. It will be capable  of attacking both  aerial and ground targets.

The next logical step in the evolution would be the operationalisation of autonomous UAS, untethered to any manned platform, capable of carrying out the tasks urgently required to be executed. 

Having developed the capability it will be possible to use autonomous drones operating ‘on call’, available as reserve to any aircraft operating in their area. The UAS swarm could be called upon to electronically jam or otherwise neutralize air defences in support of the manned aircraft. In such case the UAS would be operating untethered to any specific aircraft and to operate effectively the UAS need to have seamless interoperability and a very high degree of autonomous capability. Given the complexities of developing these capabilities, it is important that the missions on which these UAS will be used should be clarified and simplified. To amplify, if the UAS are to be used to augment the firepower or to enhance situational awareness, the UAS will need to be developed differently. If both capabilities (i.e., provide firepower and carry out surveillance) are required, it would mean having multiple UAS with each UAS carrying out its own unique job. The  swarm will then have UAS with varying payload, and capabilities, operating together as a team. 

F-35 with Loyal Wingmen

With these two options of loyal wingman and untethered UAS, the better approach is to have a “distributed” team with UAS working in a “detached” or untethered way with the option of coming back to the manned aircraft and acting as a “loyal wingman” if needed. This provides for added flexibility – UAS operating as tethered when it needs to be tethered and untethered when need be.

One interesting aspect that needs consideration is the economics of using UAS with manned aircraft. Given the increasing cost of autonomous UAS, United States is also working on the concept of expendable drone wingmen. The reason is simple economics. In a future conflict with a peer/ near peer adversary, there is strong possibility that multiple drones are shot down by enemy air defences in a short period of time. If each UAS costs $10 million, those costs start to add up quickly. Even if they are not shot down, logistics requirements to recover and sustain them so they can fly again could also be considerable. 

In such a scenario a workable option is using expendable drones with passive sensors that were fixated on what the manned system was doing and focusing on it. The UAS would adjust its behaviours and its evaluations based on what it was observing, carry out many of its roles as it could until it flies into a target and “ends with a bang.” An added advantage of using the expendable drone wingmen is that it reduces the workload on the pilots in the system.

There are multiple methods of using UAS are but in all cases one thing is apparent. The future of defence aviation is autonomous.