Posted: July 10, 2018 5:02 PM

Manned-Unmanned Teaming Concept Proposed for Strike Aircraft Scenarios

By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent

TeamingPhotoWASHINGTON — A possible solution to the shortage of strike aircraft that would be needed in a conflict with a near-peer competitor could be teaming a few piloted jets with a formation of unmanned aircraft capable of a high degree of autonomous action.

That concept, proposed July 10 by the Mitchell Institute of Aeronautical Studies, would be much cheaper to acquire than building a like number of piloted strike aircraft, less expensive to operate and reduce the risk to humans.

Although the technology required for the full execution of such complex manned-unmanned teaming is not currently available, decades of combat operations with unmanned aerial vehicles, or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) as the Air Force calls them, and accelerating experimentation in machine learning and autonomy have brought that capability within sight, officials from Mitchell, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said at a Capitol Hill briefing.

Mitchell officials cited the extensive record of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike missions by the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper RPAs, a series of increasingly complex experiments in machine learning and manned-unmanned operations, advances by the Navy’s carrier-qualified X-47B unmanned aerial system (UAS) and the Army’s teaming of AH-64 attack helicopters and the Gray Eagle UAS.

The Navy has backed off from its original goal of producing a follow-on to the X-47 that would be capable of ISR and strike, and now plans to produce an unmanned carrier-based refueling aircraft.

The Mitchell officials postured the concept of manned-unmanned teaming in combat against the increasingly tense global security environment and the two-thirds cut of bombers and nearly 50 percent reduction of Air Force fighters since the 1990 Gulf War.

The Navy and Marine Corps also have experienced reduction in strike aircraft since 1990, which marked the end of the Cold War.

The Mitchell Institute’s proposed solution would be to take retired older model F-16 fighters from the “bone yard” and equip them with the advanced computers, sensors and communications systems that would enable them to serve as semi-autonomous unmanned strike aircraft. They estimated the conversion would cost about $1.7 million per aircraft.

Maj. Gen. William Cooley, AFRL commander, endorsed the manned-unmanned concept and noted the advances in machine learning and autonomy. He said the advances in computer-aided flight, including fly-by-wire technology and the automated ground collision avoidance system, are examples of how pilots have had to gain confidence in the technologies for them to be used widely.

The Navy has had similar experience in a decades-long process of developing computerized systems that allow virtually hands-off carrier landings. Similar technology development contributed to the successful carrier qualifications of the X-47B.

Tim Grayson, director of strategic technologies at DARPA, noted its work on machine learning and said a key was the ability of the machines to communicate with each other, as well as with humans.

But Cooley questioned the “business case” for converting aged F-16s to unmanned strike aircraft. He noted that AFRL was working on a project to develop a low-cost “attritable” unmanned aerial vehicle, which could conduct autonomous strike mission. Although the aircraft would be intended to return from their missions, a loss would be less expensive than a full-size aircraft and would not risk human lives.

Cooley said the Navy was aware of the program but not directly involved at this stage.

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