•A U.S. Navy, late to the unmanned game, that could be first to step to the next generation.
Four years ago, the Air Force began an “aggressive campaign” to launch the MQ-X program to replace its General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, says Maj. Gen. James Poss, Air Force assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Now called the Next Generation RPA (for remotely piloted aircraft), the program has slipped into the next decade. “We recognize the need to operate in denied airspace and to have a capability available by the early to mid-2020s,” says Poss. “We are watching with great interest what the Navy is doing, because we think we have a common problem.”
While the services believe that today's UAS, designed to operate in permissive airspace, will not be survivable in combat against an enemy with sophisticated air defenses, they are not sure how to proceed. The Navy is first to tackle the problem with its plans to field the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (Uclass) by 2020.
“The Navy is struggling with how to execute [in denied airspace],” says Poss. “Do you go low-observable, do you swarm, or do you go with something cheap and cheery and attritable? We're not sure we know.” Meanwhile, current-generation UAS, if equipped with the electronic countermeasures of a Block 50 F-16, “are surprisingly survivable.”
“We want to stay well aligned with the Navy” as it proceeds with Uclass, says Poss. “And we are genuinely open to suggestions from industry on the best way to go.”
But a problem for industry is the lack of investment in technology development to increase the capability and improve the efficiency of next-generation UAS. “More investment needs to be made to make the step to the next generation of utility,” says Bob Ruszkowski, senior manager for market initiatives in the strategic studies group at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. “The time to invest is now,” he adds.
“The UAS we use today with relative impunity in irregular warfare will have less utility in a major theater conflict because of their survivability,” he says. Also, the manpower required to operate today's UAS, the effort needed to analyze all the data they collect, and closed architectures that make them hard to upgrade are shortcomings to that need be addressed.
In addition to being stealthy, a next-generation UAS should be capable of “full-spectrum operations and synergistic manned/unmanned missions, with an open architecture and streamlined infrastructure,” says Ruszkowski. Technologies need to be developed in the areas of vehicle, communication and information autonomy; persistence and reliability; signature management; and open architectures. “We can use some of the technologies developed on our current systems, in intelligence analysis, for example.”
Lockheed Martin has established a new business line within its Aeronautics sector to marshal company resources to develop “advanced ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] products, services and technologies,” says Ruszkowski, and to pursue “significant opportunities” such as Uclass, for which it is offering the Sea Ghost UAS. Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman also are continuing to work on Uclass concept studies under Navy contract.
The Army has similar concerns about the survivability of its unmanned aircraft as it begins to look toward future conflicts, but its near-term focus is on the cost of operating a massive UAS fleet built up over two wars. “We are looking very deliberately at reducing cost of ownership,” says Richard Kretzschmar, Army deputy program manager for UAS.