U.S. Services Outline Future Plans for Unmanned Aircraft

 - November 2, 2016, 10:22 AM
The U.S. Air Force is considering swarming, manned-unmanned teaming and 'loyal wingman' applications of small unmanned aircraft.

The U.S. Marine Corps desires a large, shipboard-capable unmanned aircraft system (UAS). The Navy is already pursuing the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueling drone, which will operate from carriers. The Army wants a new tactical UAS. And the Air Force plans to acquire small drones that would fly in swarms or complement manned aircraft in a “loyal wingman” role.

Program leaders with the U.S. services described their future UAS plans on October 26 during the Unmanned Systems Defense conference in Arlington, Va. In sum, their presentations demonstrated a robust demand for new unmanned platforms to perform a variety of missions.

The Marines have prepared an initial capabilities document (ICD) for a long-range, long-endurance, shipboard-capable Group 5 UAS, the largest category of drone weighing more than 1,320 pounds. The so-called Marine Air-Ground Task Force UAS Expeditionary (MUX) aircraft would have vertical takeoff and landing capable and enter service in 2024-2026.

Candidate platform demonstrations could begin next year, said Marine Lt. Gen. J.M. “Dog” Davis, whose presentation featured drawings of aircraft concepts including the Bell V-247 Vigilant unmanned tiltrotor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and Northrop Grumman TERN (Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node) program and the Lockheed Martin/Piasecki Aircraft ARES (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System).

The MUX platform would follow the Marines’ new Insitu RQ-21A Blackjack, a catapult-launched Group 3 UAS that Davis revealed is “not just an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) platform” that has seen combat in two locations he declined to identify. The service deployed the Blackjack in Afghanistan in 2014 as an early operational capability.

In the last several weeks, the Navy has awarded Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Boeing risk-reduction contracts to refine their concepts for the MQ-25A Stingray, also a Group 5 UAS. The service expects to release a request for proposals for the program later this year, said Rear Adm. Robert Girrier, Navy director of unmanned warfare systems.

The Army will refine its requirement for a new tactical UAS that would operate at brigade level in the late 2020s, said Brig. Gen. Robert Marion, program executive officer for aviation. “We’re competing for funding for that. We have an ICD that is in staffing,” Marion reported. The service will emphasize reliability and maintainability, runway independence and availability of the platform in austere environments, he said.

In the meantime, the Army is re-engining the Textron Systems RQ-7B Shadow, which operates now at the brigade level. It plans to begin delivering the long-endurance General Atomics Improved Gray Eagle (IGE) to the Intelligence and Security and Special Operations commands in Fiscal Year 2018, which begins next October.

The Army will also procure a short-range micro (SRM) unmanned aircraft in FY18 that will operate at battalion and company levels with the current RQ-11B Raven and RQ-20A Puma hand-launched fixed-wing drones. “We have a validated requirement for that and we’re pursuing funding to support delivering that capability to the Army,” Marion said.

Also looking at small UAS is the Air Force, which is being influenced by the Pentagon’s “third offset strategy” to develop new technologies and concepts, as well as its own “bending the cost curve” initiative to drive down acquisition costs.

The service’s “Small UAS Flight Plan: 2016-2036,” released this spring, “is visionary at this point,” said Col. Brandon Baker, Air Force chief of remotely piloted aircraft capabilities. “But certainly we have S&T [science and technology] dollars and we have a lot of work that’s behind the scenes right now, working toward building and developing these capabilities for the future.” The service also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Darpa to expand the scope of the latter agency’s “Gremlins” program to enable aircraft to launch volleys of low-cost, reusable UAS, he said.

Baker outlined three small UAS concepts of operation the service is contemplating: deploying a swarm of air vehicles to overwhelm an enemy’s air defenses or to “disaggregate” various sensor payloads; teaming with manned aircraft to share information in a network; and supplementing tactical aircraft such as the F-35A Lightning II with “loyal” wingmen.

The loyal wingman concept is three-fold, Baker said. “It’s a host platform with subordinate small UAS that either makes the host platform more effective (by) carrying weapons as weapons mules, additional sensors, jammers and so-forth, to make that aircraft more effective,” he explained. “The second piece is to protect the host platform. If we’re operating in a highly contested environment we may want some decoys, some jammers, to get radars to look elsewhere when the real business we’re doing with that F-35 may be in another part of the country.

"Finally, this could be a delivery mechanism. The host platform may deliver small UAS, drop them off into an independent type of mission that’s not necessarily related to the host platform.”