Published in the UAV supplement 2020/2021 – The role of networked unmanned wingmen closely supporting manned jet aircraft is a vision that is now being realised.
Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) is major theme of big ticket development programmes on both sides of the Atlantic among the Five Eyes (FVEY) group of countries, with the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and US/Australian Airpower Teaming System (ATS) taking significant steps forward in recent months.
Phase 1A of the overarching FCAS demonstration programme launched earlier this year on 12 February has Dassault as prime contractor for the manned New Generation Fighter (NGF) with Airbus as its main partner, and Airbus acting as prime for the unmanned Remote Carrier (RC) element with missile specialist MBDA as main partner.
Naturally, robust and secure networked communications are considered crucial to the concept of operations in which the manned platform will manage a diverse package of UAVs that will do the dull, dirty and dangerous work inside the engagement zone of modern Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS).
Airbus is also serving as prime on the Air Combat Cloud (ACC) that is to provide the airborne infrastructure with reachback to home networks that will serve up tactically relevant and timely information to reconnaissance and strike packages. Thales is taking on the role of main parter on ACC.
All the companies involved in FCAS are committed to cooperation on a common simulation environment to ensure consistency between demonstrators.
As prime on the RC element, Airbus is addressing the entire scope and additionally focusing on artificial intelligence (AI) as it applies to teaming, and will also develop the medium-to-large platforms. The company has extensive experience with platforms from small to large and with teaming, having operated the Barracuda demonstrator since 2006. This vehicle has acted as a testbed for technologies and procedures to be used by the next generation of UAVs in fast reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting and Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) missions. Missile specialist MBDA is to develop the small and medium RC platforms.
As force multipliers, RCs will take on specific roles in high-risk environments and provide new capabilities in conjunction with, and coordinated by, manned air assets including but not limited to the NGF.
One particularly crucial aspect of teaming will be cross-platform mission management, allocating and reallocating tasks to different vehicles, both individually and in groups, as mission phases unfold. The idea is for the RCs to complement and augment the manned fighters, cooperating closely but with enough autonomy to improve performance in high-intensity conflicts and increase combat mass to compensate for the small numbers of sophisticated manned fighters that defence spending plans are expected to fund.
It is likely to be the RC vehicles that benefit from more radical designs, as it is easier to adopt and develop new technologies quickly with unmanned platforms than with manned ones, and types being studied include some that can be employed in expendable swarms, as well as more sophisticated groups that can take on more demanding missions with a high degree of autonomy and task sharing, prioritisation and reallocation. The scope here is broad, but one of the high level goals is to enable safer penetration of hostile airspace by manned aircraft. That is a tall order today, as Russian and Chinese IADS technology is generally believed to have the upper hand.
Air Combat Cloud
On 20 February it was announced that Airbus and Thales had joined forces to develop the ACC, and the companies are set to work together on the structural design of the communications system needed to support collaborative national and multi-national air operations and that will link the manned and unmanned assets. ACC’s purpose is to connect and synchronise all the platforms and enable the processing and distribution of information to enhance situational awareness and collaborative operation, the companies explain.
The agreement represents the ACC pillar within Phase 1A of the FCAS demonstration effort, is to lead up to the early technology demonstrations intended to showcase ACC capabilities in a real world environment. Covering a period extending 18 months from signature date, it is also regarded as the starting point for further demonstrations and technology development.
Airbus has extensive experience in the development of sophisticated military aircraft for both combat and supporting roles, along with the development and integration of mission systems and weapon. The company will also bring its expertise in space systems and collaborative digital C5ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Cybersecurity, Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) technologies to bear.
Design and implementation of ACC’s first instantiation will be within the framework of Franco-German FCAS cooperation. Subsequently, the intention is to enlarge its scope to include national air forces at European level, should member nations decide to join the programme. Further, incremental inclusion of existing platforms and related collaborative combat capabilities is expected to combine with the NGF and RC unmanned vehicles as they come on stream to that full FCAS capability is anticipated by 2040.
February also saw Boeing Australia announce that it had completed the first fuselage for a Loyal Wingman unmanned aircraft, a concept demonstration vehicle that is to form a key element of Boeing’s manned-unmanned Airpower Teaming System (ATS) effort.
Loyal Wingman is an advanced development programme being pursued jointly by Boeing and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) along with an Australian industrial team. The aircraft measures 38 foot (11.7m) in its largest dimension, and digital engineering and advanced composite materials have been used by the Australian team to achieve their goals for low cost and high agility.
Team member BAE Systems Australia provided hardware kits including flight control computers and navigation equipment, while RUAG Australia provided the landing gear, AME Systems wiring looms, and Ferra Engineering various precision-machined components and sub-assemblies.
Following on from construction of this first major structural assembly, the next major milestone that must be achieve is to install the undercarriage so that the fuselage can come out of its assembly jig to continue systems installation and functional testing. Before COVID-19, the aircraft had been expected to fly for the first time this year.
This first prototype is intended to provide lessons that will feed into the development of ATS, which is what Boeing Australia is currently calling the operational aircraft it will offer to the global defence market. Boeing says that this aircraft represents its biggest investment in a new UAV outside the US and that it will provide fighter-like performance and a range of more than 2,000 nautical miles. It is also to carry integrated sensor packages to support ISR and EW missions and also to exploit artificial intelligence to operate independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe separation.
DARPA Wants Swarms
Other advanced capabilities under investigation include swarms of dissimilar unmanned systems, both airborne and ground based, capable of conducting military operations in urban environments. This is the subject of the US Defence Advanced Research Agency’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) initiative. Under OFFSET, nine contractors are to start work on what DARPA describes as the ‘fifth swarm sprint’ for the programme, which envisions up to 250 collaborative autonomous systems providing insights to ground troops operating in dense, crowded towns and cities.
Key areas to be investigated under OFFSET include swarm tactics, swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, virtual environments and physical testbeds. As the “sprint” label implies, the intention is to foster rapid innovation and continuous incorporation of new technologies.
The fifth swarm sprint is focused on the physical testbed and swarm tactics. Organisations selected for the first include Michigan Technological University/Michigan Tech Research Institute, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, HDT Expeditionary Systems, Sentien Robotics and Texas A&M University. They are to focus on speeding up integration of hardware and enhancements to reduce swarm deployment time, introducing new navigation and perception sensors, employing fixed-wing aircraft into swarm operations, and enhancing the mobility of wheeled vehicles.
In addition to Michigan Tech, Charles River Analytics, Soar Technology, and Northwestern University are working on the swarm tactics area and are to focus on the design and implementation of new tactics using a swarm of air and ground robots, and addressing mission objectives such as to seize key urban terrain within eight square city blocks over a mission duration of four-to-six hours. According to DARPA, proposed tactics include disrupting enemy decision making, obfuscating the swarms intent, updating maps of a dynamic environment, and maintaining the swarm’s communications inside buildings.
In other developments, Elbit announced $20 million worth of contracts in April to upgrade Hermes 900 MALE UAVs for Latin American customers, integrating satcom and automatic take-off and landing systems into aircraft already in service.
In April, the US Ambassador to South Korea revealed the delivery of a Global Hawk HALE UAV system to an undisclosed location, with more expected. South Korea bought four Block 30 RQ-4s in 2011.
Illustrating China’s growing prowess in the UAV arena, a Chinese military website published a brief analysis of the popularity of the Predator-like Wing Loong system, which it called China’s best selling armament. The 30ft (9m) long, one tonne aircraft has a 46ft (14m) wingspan and can carry two missiles under the fuselage at once. Wing Loong has been exported to more than a dozen countries in recent years, China Military Online said. It also expressed the opinion that the Wing Loong’s competitive price of around $1 million for a single air vehicle, rising to about $3 million with the GCS, was a major reason for its success. Other Chinese UAVs, big and small, have a growing presence in the world military market.