The panel session on Wednesday morning discussing remotely-piloted vehicles provided several insights into the future of unmanned technology. With Captain George Galdorisi moderating, the panel included Dr Norman Friedman, Brig Gen Peter E Gersten USAF, Col Timothy Healy USA, and LTCol Thomas “Buzz” Rempfer USAF.
This is the second time I have heard LtCol Rempfer discuss unmanned systems. He is a former F-16 and A-10 pilot who flies UAVs today in the combat air support role for troops over Afghanistan, and previously Iraq. LtCol Rempfer discussed the big differences between flying combat air support missions in fixed wing aircraft vs what he is able to do today with remotely piloted vehicles. With his A-10 he usually had just enough fuel to take a tasking, orient towards a target, strike the target, and go home. Despite the ability to deliver a punch in his A-10, he never had any opportunities during a flight to get true situational awareness on the ground or develop any type of connection with the folks on the ground. With his remotely piloted vehicles he would have an opportunity to stay with the unit he was supporting for long periods of time, get to know the commanders on the ground, and get engaged in the situational awareness unlike anything a fast, manned fixed wing fighter is capable of doing. He stressed the relationship between air support and ground operators did matter, but no one knew it would until the UAVs gave the USAF more time over the AO to discover this.
Dr Friedman suggested that no one should get too comfortable with the majority of UAVs that have been developed today. The panel suggested what will likely happen is that the current generation of vehicles may end up being theater specific, incapable of scaling to other theaters primarily because today’s unmanned aviation systems over Afghanistan are largely dependent upon the assured access that we enjoy in the air. Dr. Friedman noted that several smaller companies in the unmanned systems space today may not survive as the DoD moves towards more robust systems, and may not be able to make that transition with the DoD.
But it was Col Healy who first brought up the buzz word most people look for in the unmanned systems hearings – artificial intelligence. In the context of the bandwidth discussion – which is the great limitation of unmanned systems, artificial intelligence is needed to condense the bandwidth costs of the system to allow the system to perform several functions of the aircraft without the pilot, but that doesn’t mean artificial intelligence will lead to complete autonomy. Col Healy suggested there will never be truly unmanned combat systems, “A man will always be in the loop” he said.
In response to a question, Col Healy discussed how the US Army is fielding units that have already teamed manned and unmanned systems. He stressed the value of having the manned and unmanned pilots in the same room during a mission brief was having a significant impact to how missions are conducted, and provides real opportunities to teaming as manned and unmanned systems continue to develop operational concepts and tactics. As more robust remotely controlled strike aircraft are fielded in the USAF and US Navy, the panel left the sense that teaming between unmanned and manned is likely the future in the strike space as well, and will be the future growth area of remotely controlled air systems.
There was one question raised regarding unmanned surface and underwater systems. Dr Friedman suggested that sea state is going to severely limit the utility of unmanned surface vehicles unless larger unmanned surface platforms are developed. This reminded me of the early ideas in the Navy (that were never taken seriously, unfortunately) to just make the entire Littoral Combat Ship unmanned just to see what the problems are to make a large ship unmanned work. Dr. Friedman said the missions of surface vehicles will mostly focus on port activities. Unmanned underwater systems are advancing a much greater pace, and as underwater communications continue to improve this space is going to have significant impact on the way the US Navy fights – not only with submarines but also at the fleet level. Dr Friedman specifically pointed to mine warfare as an area unmanned systems will be required in the future, because as mines continue to get more sophisticated and when deployed in large numbers, he suggested unmanned underwater systems may be the only way to clear minefields in the future.
Following the panel session I asked several in attendance regarding the US Navy’s development of unmanned systems, specifically regarding the perception that the development of unmanned systems has been it is coming along too slow. This was the view of ADM Roughead in the last days of CNO, and Bob Work has frequently discussed the necessity of the US Navy to move faster with those systems. Admiral Greenert recently announced the Navy will move faster on the Large Displacement UUV, a system that was previously thought of as nothing more than a DARPA project. The reasons for the potentially slow-go on unmanned systems include budget priorities, the usual bureaucracy, and community resistance – particularly on the naval aviation side. With the Joint Strike Fighter sucking the budget of naval aviation it is unclear if the US Navy will have anything similar to a robust UAV capability before 2020, and I’m not only speaking of carrier based UAVs but UAVs from most ships. Ultimately everyone seemed to agree it will be the submarine community that advances unmanned technologies in the Navy with the continued development and deployment of unmanned underwater technologies – which some of the folks I discussed this topic with suggested may have the most promise in unmanned technologies long term anyway. Regarding Littoral Combat Ship, it would appear morale is low, but mostly because no one really seems to have any sense of where the mission modules are in terms of development. Amusingly, it’s almost as if no one cares either.