Air Force Needs Disposable Aircraft, Official Says

Mass synchrony. Drone swarms flying ahead of fighter jets. Disposable aircraft.

It may seem chaotic, but the Air Force must adopt the concept of pilotless technology -- maybe sooner than planned, the head of the Defense Department's Strategic Capabilities Office said Tuesday.

"We are going to have to start building teams -- what used to be solo systems are going to have to be teams to be relevant in the near future, maybe even the far future," SCO Director William Roper told an audience at a briefing outside Washington, D.C., organized by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute.

Roper said the technology is available to make "teams of systems higher performing than solo systems." But of the four military branches, the Air Force -- ironically -- may be lagging in adopting such aviation technology, he said.

"I think this [using disposable platforms] is going to be harder for the Air Force than for the other services. I hope I'm wrong on that," Roper said.

"We have not had that in our platforms. All the things that we build are expensive," he said. "The expectation is if it's a platform that takes off, it will return home."

It's why so much goes into the acquisition and requirements process when dealing with budgets and life sustainment costs. Roper said SCO doesn't use the word requirement other than to prepare "for the high-end fight."

That cultural shift may be tough, he said, because the Air Force hasn't had the need to rely on the concept of expendable platforms -- yet.

"That hasn't been an issue until now," he continued. "It's a huge constraint [because] you have to protect [the platform]. You have to maintain it and sustain it. It's not as freeing as something you would throw away."

Roper gave the example of Avatar, in the works under SCO in partnership with the Air Force Research Lab and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which pairs expendable UAVs -- possibly older fighter jets used as autonomous planes, or unmanned aerial vehicles --  flying ahead of the manned fighter.

"Why do we love this so much? It keeps people safe -- for machines to take the brunt … at least at that initial edge of conflict," more fighter operators can return safely, he explained.

For example, in January, the Navy tested remote-controlled micro drones dropping out of fighter jets. The exercise, held at China Lake, California, used three F/A-18 multi-role fighters launching 103 Perdix micro drones from "specially designed canisters affixed under the aircraft's fuselages," The Washington Post reported at the time.

The Air Force has simulated a similar drop. In 2014, Perdix drones were dropped from F-16 Fighting Falcons at Edwards Air Force Base, California, the Post said. The service recently said it wants to use more F-16s  -- upgraded with advanced capabilities -- to replace its F-15C/D fleet in the next 10 years. Whether that includes a drone-drop upgrade is to be determined.

Last May, Air Force leaders outlined the service's plan -- called Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan -- for what the next 20 years will look like for remotely piloted aircraft, potentially integrating small drones and swarms into existing programs.

Roper said the culture shift may need to happen sooner. He explained that during the Cold War era, the Air Force made architectural choices that emphasized longevity of its platforms -- from fighters to sensors -- but the military cannot "rely on [these things] forever."

Instead, move some of the reliability in a war scenario from the high-end asset to the low-end asset, such as drone swarms, he said.

If the Air Force doesn't take such an approach, "we will continue designing systems that look very much like what we have today, and the world has watched these systems on display very proficiently," Roper said, something the enemy "will try to exploit."

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