Single-operator ground stations and weapons-carrying “wingmen” for the Lockheed Martin F-35 are two future capabilities desired by the US Air Force’s fleet of unmanned air systems (UAS), the service’s intelligence chief says.

For the past 15 years, the USAF has built a fleet of armed reconnaissance UAS with the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-9 Reaper and high-altitude surveillance platforms, such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk.

But budget constraints have forced the air force to prioritise modernisation programmes that make existing fleets more efficient.

One major improvement could reduce a currently two-person Reaper flight crew by half on most missions, says Lt Gen Robert Otto, the air force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“There are certainly missions today that could be done by one woman or one man managing both the aircraft and the sensors if we architected the ground station to support it,” Otto says.

Such a change could significantly reduce the air force’s manpower problem. The USAF now operates 60 continuous surveillance orbits with the MQ-9 and MQ-1 Predator, which requires a cadre of about 1,000 pilots and 1,000 sensor operators.

By redesigning the ground station for single-pilot operations, like the Lockheed Martin F-16, the air force could potentially reduce the manpower requirement by hundreds of sensor operators, Otto says.

Another upgrade could introduce an auto-land capability on the MQ-9, a capability that exists already on the RQ-4, Otto says. That could reduce the manpower requirement to staff launch and recovery element teams for each of the 60 surveillance orbits.

In the long-term, Otto suggested that UAS could solve another strategic problem for the USAF. The F-35A Lightning II has a limited weapons magazine, requiring the aircraft to return to base and re-arm. By teaming an F-35 with an unmanned wingman that performs as a “weapons mule”, the USAF could significantly increase the number of weapons at its disposal in combat operations, Otto says.