Drone Swarm for Maximum Harm

(There's a section on the impact of cheap, numerous unmanned aircraft in my book Weapons Grade, now in paperback. Here's one man's vision of what they could mean.)The awesome future of air power is just around the corner but the Air Force doesn't want it. Thats the word from Gregory Jenkins of the USAFs Air Armament Center, self-styled 'heretic' and architect of a concept he calls Just In Time Strike Augmentation (JITSA).Dominator.jpgThere are many fleeting targets on the modern battlefield that appear briefly and are gone. Think Saddam Husseins entourage slipping from one hideout to the next, or a Transporter-Erector-Launcher moving into firing position, or a pickup full of insurgents fleeing after staging a mortar attack. An air strike that takes five minutes to arrive is useless in these situations.Jenkins vision is a networked battlespace with unmanned aircraft maintaining continuous surveillance over a wide area. At the cutting edge is Boeings Air Dominator, a 100 lb drone with a 12-foot span which looks like a model aircraft. I interviewed the people involved in the Dominator program two years ago here. Although Boeing say they have nothing new to report, there have been enhancements since then. A special lightweight fuel cell could bring its endurance to over 40 hours, and theres a sophisticated new vision system for mid-air refueling to increase endurance even further. Each Dominator will carry out up to three attacks using munitions similar to but more versatile than the BLU-108 Skeet . (Some sources claim this has been increased to eight submunitions; Boeing say its still three).Above all it will be cheap, so unlike the solitary MQ-1 Predator drones, Dominator will be used in packs, with a large number of hunter-killers accompanied by a few 'gateway' vehicles providing networked communications and refuelling. Each craft folds away into a pod just eight inches square and four feet long for transport and launch. The plan calls for two dozen or so were to be delivered by an F/A-22 Raptor jet at high speed, but Jenkins is thinking much bigger.Dominate3.jpgYou dont need a stealthy, high-performance aircraft to deliver something that can travel hundreds of miles on its own. In the JITSA scheme Dominators would be packed in pallets of twenty on a C-17 transport plane, with thirty pallets in all thats a total of six hundred drones. A loadmaster would handle the individual release of as many as needed. Its something akin to a British FOAS concept of replacing bombers with a transport plane packed with palletized cruise missiles.Once in position, the swarm would maintain air dominance over a wide area, providing both of continuous surveillance and instant reaction. Jenkins estimates that any target in the kill zone could be hit within 2-4 minutes maximum. None of those fleeting targets would escape.Against a conventional force, Jenkins calls the JITSA system a back breaker, destroying armor, artillery and air defences on a massive scale, not to mention taking out air forces on the ground.Dominators can also tackle targets that would normally take much larger munitions by being smarter. You might need a 2000 lb laser guided bomb to destroy a bridge, but a few Dominators can simply destroy vehicles attempting to use it. The bridge is denied to the enemy just as well, and you dont have to rebuild afterwards.The system can also neutralize deep bunkers which are invulnerable to the heaviest bombs. Missiles or stores of WMD are not going to harm anyone if they are stuck underground with a swarm of Dominators overhead 24/7, ready to attack anything the minute it emerges. Underground command centres become prisons.The kill decision will always be delegated to a human operator using a mobile control set, so in the example above the bridge could be selectively closed to military vehicles.Dominate2.jpgJITSA is much bigger than Ive described here Jenkins has detailed a true net-centric concept, with additional tiers and other aircraft types providing extra capabilities. It doesnt even have to be based on Dominators, any networked loitering UAV would do.The Air Force is going head with Dominator, but not in the swarms Jenkins would like to see. So why is JITSA not a USAF-endorsed concept at this time, with no funds allocated? In a world of multi-billion dollar programs, it offers outstanding capability for a modest outlay and minimal development. Perhaps a system based on something that looks like a toy and has no requirement for manned combat aircraft is not too popular with the blue suits. Or perhaps the idea of pilots demoted to delivery-truck drivers does not fit their vision.So JITSA is still on the shelf. But even if the US does not buy into the concept, that doesnt mean nobody else will. And what might happen then would be anybodys guess.Thanks to SSgt. Ryan Hansen, AAC Public Affairs and Marguerite Ozburn at Boeing for their help.-- David Hambling

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