The US Department of Defense needs to develop new unmanned aircraft that can survive inside contested airspace, as it shifts its focus toward the Pacific - but the services must invest in new technologies to seamlessly share intelligence data.
There is growing recognition inside the halls of the Pentagon that the massive fleet of unmanned aircraft that the country has amassed over the past decade may face irrelevance in light of the growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenges emerging in the western Pacific and the Middle East.
"As budget pressures increase and manpower levels potentially decrease, the ability to access and share intelligence information from any/all cross-service, cross-domain, and intelligence community ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets will become even more important," says a senior US Air Force official. "While we're clearly not there yet, that appears to be where most in the DoD and intelligence community are heading."
But while sharing data seamlessly will be vital, gathering that surveillance data is becoming increasingly difficult with the proliferation of advanced air defences. For the US Navy, that problem is further complicated by advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.
To tackle the threat, the US Navy is hoping to field a new, stealthy, long-range, unmanned, carrier-launched, surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft by 2020. The US Air Force, which is also in need of a new next-generation unmanned aircraft, does not have the money to launch its own similar programme.
Mark Gunzinger, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says that the USN can probably pay for the UCLASS - but will have to make some tough choices.
"They're going to have to make some trade-offs," says Gunzinger. "Do they want to continue on the current path of buying as many [Lockheed Martin] F-35s as are on the books today, or do they want to change the mix for the future carrier air wing by perhaps, in the near term, buying a few more [Boeing] F/A-18s and investing in UCLASS and in the future buying a few less F-35s?"
But if the Congressional "sequestration" budget manoeuvre axes another $500 billion over 10 years from the US defence budget this coming January, all bets are off.
Although the USN is hoping for an initial operational capability date of 2020 for the UCLASS, the aircraft probably will not be truly combat-capable by that time, says a senior USN official.
Moreover, the USN has not quite settled on what capabilities it wants for the UCLASS. Having just completed an analysis of alternatives for the programme, the USN's three-star requirements officers are finalising the UCLASS's key performance parameters. But those recommendations have to be formally blessed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Only after the USN has a formal set of requirements will the service select a number of different contractors to develop competing designs. "There will be winners of the initial award, and then we down-select in the 2016 timeframe," the USN official says. But one aspect of the UCLASS that the USN has settled on is that the aircraft will have some low observables built into the airframe: "In the broadest sense, there will be stealth characteristics that every UCLASS vehicle will have."
The aircraft's stealth characteristics will likely be upgraded with new technology as time passes and more money becomes available. Those new technologies might include advanced coatings and new types of airframe edges.
"Part of that is the shape, and that shape will determine the growth potential of the stealth," the USN official says. "But with any shape we consider there will be some stealth capabilities."
The USN wants not just the stealth but the entire aircraft to be designed to "spiral in growth capabilities" over time as budgets allow. These capabilities might include new sensors, processors, weapons or other payloads. But the UCLASS will start off as a fairly modestly appointed aircraft.
"In the beginning, we may only have a couple different types of weapons like JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions] or small diameter bombs," the USN official says. "But in the future we foresee that the mission bay can [be] used for a variety of different purposes." Those purposes might include information operations or electronic attack.
The objective of the UCLASS programme is to fill what the USN says is "a long-standing gap" in persistent carrier-based ISR coverage. "We're thinking that this platform is as capable in an A2/AD environment as it would be for irregular warfare scenarios," the USN official says.
But while the UCLASS will have some of the capabilities needed for operations inside A2/AD environments, the aircraft as initially fielded will not have deep penetrating strike capabilities.
The USN official emphasises that there are no capabilities currently envisioned for the UCLASS that would enable the aircraft to persist inside heavily defended airspace without support: "UCLASS is no silver bullet. It will be part of all the joint assets that would have to be involved to really try to chip away at a very advanced air defence network."
Over time, the UCLASS will probably become much more capable against those types of threats - but "we can't tell you exactly what its true capability will be in 2025 against North Korean and Chinese or Iranian air defences", warns the official.
In the near term, the USAF does have some plans in place to tackle the problem of gathering ISR data inside high-threat environments. In the USAF's view, the current unmanned aircraft fleet can play a role, but not in the same way those machines have been used over the past 10 years.
"Most of our current RPA systems were developed for the current conflict in a permissive environment. As we begin to draw down forces in the Middle East and acknowledge the new strategy of shifting to the Pacific and A2/AD environments, we need to begin looking more holistically at the range of ISR capabilities that exist or will exist to include air, space, and cyberspace assets," says the USAF official. "In other words, RPAs may still be needed and useful in a long endurance stand-off role given longer range sensor capabilities in the early phases of an A2/AD conflict and in later phases of the conflict when regional or theatre air supremacy has been achieved."
But analyst Dan Goure at the Lexington Institute is sceptical of the existing Predator and Reaper unmanned aircrafts' ability to gather useful intelligence from standoff distances. The aircraft are slow and typically operate at medium altitudes of around 25,000ft, which is not high enough to effectively gather ISR sensor data from long ranges. "I have no idea what standoff is for UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] in a threat environment with triple digit SAMs [surface-to-air missiles]," Goure says. "That makes absolutely no sense."
He points out the unmanned aircraft would have to stand off hundreds miles away from the threat in order to survive: "Maybe a [Northrop Grumman RQ-4] Global Hawk can do it."
Indeed, for the USN, the centrepiece of its airborne ISR capabilities in the Western Pacific will be its version of the USAF Global Hawk, the MQ-4C Triton Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) aircraft.
"BAMS is probably considered the flagship programme right now," the USN official says. For operations in the Pacific, the aircraft will operate from standoff distances during operations against A2/AD threats. Potentially, the aircraft could operate closer in if the threat environment allows for it.
The USN plans to buy 68 BAMS aircraft with the hope of declaring initial operational capability in fiscal year 2016. The aircraft will be upgraded over time, and the USN hopes to deploy a signals intelligence capability on the MQ-4C by 2019.
The service will have only 20 aircraft, or five BAMS orbits, flying at any given time. Originally, the navy had intended to deploy the aircraft fairly evenly across its global operations. But with the renewed US focus on the Pacific, service officials are expecting to place a greater number of the aircraft in that theatre.
Until a next-generation unmanned aircraft is fielded, the USAF and USN will have to rely on alterative means to gather intelligence and conduct strike missions until an enemy's air defence systems have been sufficiently neutralised.
"In the interim, other sensors/capabilities more suited for an A2/AD environment and phase of conflict - space, cyberspace, and fifth-generation aircraft in a non-traditional ISR role - could be used to provide the required ISR situational awareness and support," the USAF official says.
To accomplish that task, the USN, USAF and national intelligence agencies will have to work together much closer than ever before.
"To achieve this more holistic sensor/platform-agnostic vision of ISR support, our DoD and intel community processing, exploitation, and dissemination [PED] architectures need to be able to ingest data from any/all traditional and non-traditional ISR sources - air, space, cyberspace, surface, and sub-surface - and make the data accessible and usable in near-real-time for joint, IC [intelligence community], and coalition warfighters/users worldwide," the USAF official says.
To achieve that goal, the DoD is already working on developing far greater operational coordination between the services under its AirSea battle concept.
One major challenge faced by unmanned aircraft inside an A2/AD environment is that the communications inside those highly contested areas may not be secure or could even be non-existent. An enemy force will almost certainly attempt to attack the satellite communications links between a control station and an unmanned aircraft. The USN hopes to address the problem by bypassing satellite links and instead rely on shorter-range, but more difficult to jam, data-links.
But the USN, as part of the AirSea battle construct, hopes to not only be able to operate naval unmanned aircraft, but also USAF machines.
"If you're dealing with an A2/AD kind of environment and the satcom becomes degraded or unreliable, it makes sense that we would want to have a capability from some of our larger-capital ships to be able to not only see the data coming off, say a [USAF] Global Hawk, but also to be able C2 [command and control] or fly that Global Hawk," the USN official says. "That's in addition to our BAMS, and in addition to the UCLASS, and to do it from one station."
The USN hopes to develop that common control station through the auspices of the UCLASS programme. The BAMS aircraft would be the second aircraft to be integrated into the system. The USN also hopes to add the ability to control the USAF's Global Hawk and its own Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout in subsequent upgrades.
More importantly, the USN hopes to directly receive and analyse intelligence data - not just from USN assets, but all DoD ISR collectors - onboard a carrier. That capability would be crucial during a campaign inside an A2/AD environment.
The USAF broadly seems to agree with the USN position. "Clearly this is broader than just the air force and will require the complementary efforts in meta-data standards, interoperability, federated networks, information sharing, certification and accreditation, security policies, et cetera, by all DoD and IC organisations," the USAF official says.
However, processing the vast amount of data that is already gathered is overwhelming the DoD's ability to analyse that intelligence - and consuming huge amounts of precious satellite bandwidth, the USN official says.
In the future, the USN and USAF both hope that advanced analytics will enable much of the initial data analysis to be processed on board an unmanned ISR platform. Only important data would be transmitted, which would reduce both the amount of bandwidth needed and the workload for intelligence analysts.
Currently, analysts have to watch a video-feed from a drone for hours at a time even if nothing is happening. An automated system would alert the human analyst if something significant happened, which would allow that analyst to do something else in the meantime.
"In tomorrow's world, you cannot afford the way the air force has been forced to do it since 9/11," the USN official says.