From an operational perspective, the convergence of guided weapon and unmanned air vehicle technology is reflected in new ideas for deep battlefield surveillance and strike, particularly emerging concepts for "co-operative weapons" and "hunting pack" operations.

US think tank RAND is working on a concept based on "flocks" of small, low-cost air vehicles similar to the US Air Force's Lockheed Martin LOCAAS mini-missile, each carrying sufficient sensors to detect each other and monitor their environment. Air vehicles would communicate with each other through short-range datalink, while simple algorithms based on models of birds in flight or ants foraging would govern co-operative behaviour as the flock seeks out targets.

RAND suggests laser radar (LADAR) as the primary sensor, with the flock combining to cover far larger search areas then possible with a single air vehicle. Some vehicles would carry unitary penetrator warheads while others would be equipped with submunition dispensers. A scout variant would have a more capable sensor and communications suite to enable reactive operations and provide co-ordination capabilities to tackle more complex targets. While the capability of each weapon would be limited, by working co-operatively, larger targets could be attacked with greater precision than possible using a single strike system suck as a large cruise missile.

The UK's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) is working on a concept with close parallels to the RAND approach, but which seeks to apply behavioural patterns modelled on larger mammals such as lions. This includes the ability to evolve the engagement strategy as the operation progresses.

The concept proposes common air vehicles supporting a range of different warhead types, but also a variety of sensors rather than a common system as in the RAND concept. Co-ordination would again be provided by short-range links, but with the addition of sophisticated distributed processing capabilities.

This would enable the creation of detailed pictures of a target area, the selection of target sets, the development of engagement strategies and mission execution, all autonomously – or semi-autonomous if human input is required.

This higher order approach could allow strikes by a single weapon rather than a multitude as required within RAND's idea. DERA researchers also suggest their approach could result in the planned stimulation of a target response. For example, if a group of weapons was attacking a mobile land vehicle beneath a forest canopy, one weapon might be used to induce the target to manoeuvre so as to make it vulnerable to a second hidden from sight.

Both models of co-operative behaviour may also have application in more traditional UAV roles. BAE Systems for example, is developing a system for autonomous navigation over relatively unknown terrain by building up detailed maps as multiple UAVs fly co-operatively over the area. The system will be given its first demonstration later this year using small UAVs developed by the University of Sydney, Australia.

Source: Flight International