Armed with Science: The Unmanned Way of Warfare

I think we need to come to terms with the fact that the age of AI is upon us.

From the indifferent-yet-dulcet tones of Siri, to the soda machine robot that lets you pick grape-cream-diet-vanilla-pepper, these so-called intelligent machines are taking a larger part in the way we live our lives.

The same can be said for modern warfare.

range balanced force picture 1

Imagine the noise – or lack thereof – that these things would make. (Graphic illustration from www.airpower.au.af.mil)

I’m talking about remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).  The use of these cool flying robots is nothing new per se, but the advancement of an unmanned fleet is becoming more and more of a reality.

So will we see legions of flying robots patrolling the skies?

So glad you asked…

Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Garretson is the Division Chief for Air Force Irregular Warfare Strategy, Plans and Policy (and previously the Chief of Future Science and Technology Exploration for Air Force Strategic Planning).  Recently he published a paper titled A Range-Balanced Force, An Alternate Force Structure Adapted to New Defense Priorities.  The topic on hand was, you guessed it, RPAs and UAVs.

More specifically, the important and growing role that they are playing in modern warfare.

According to Lt. Col. Garretson, the tides are changing in a big way when it comes to protecting that wild blue yonder. For the first time, the Air Force is buying more RPAs – the Air Force’s current term and method of operating remotely piloted / autonomous aerial systems – than fighters and training more RPA operators than fighter pilots.

According to the new (military regulation) guidance, “The U.S. military will invest as required to ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial environments. This will include implementing the Joint Operational Access Concept; developing a new stealth bomber, [and] improving missile defenses.”

However, it’s not as simple as just rolling out the roaming robots, as it were.

These expanding environments (changing strategic environments) feature significant ballistic and cruise missile threats, Lt. Col. Garretson writes, which put at risk close-in bases, carriers, tankers, and other high-value assets which underpin our fighter-heavy strike forces. In such environments, the Air Force must supply a “halt-hold” force at the highest end of the spectrum of warfare in theaters characterized by few air bases – all under missile threat.

To remain relevant, the service will also need a force structure that gives the United States a definite asymmetric advantage, Lt. Col. Garretson argues.  Basically, they need the ability to function from a long range.  RPAs and UAVs are a way to make that happen while also reducing the risk of causalities.

And mitigating risk is a major factor when considering any type of military strategy.

The dangers articulated in the new defense strategic guidance are not considered principally land threats, he writes.  Essentially, the dangers we face don’t necessarily call for a large, mobilized army.

Lt. Col. Garretson makes the argument that the United States’ airpower and industrial base can supply the necessary speed of response and overmatch to deter threats; threaten escalation; and flexibly engage, disengage, and impose costs.

As noted by Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, “This robotics revolution is not just an American revolution.”

Moreover, the Government Accountability Office reported that “since 2005, the number of countries that acquired an unmanned aerial vehicle system nearly doubled from about 40 to more than 75. In addition, countries of proliferation concern developed and fielded increasingly more sophisticated systems.”

Lt. Col. Garretson writes that, given the conclusion of US combat operations in Iraq and the anticipated withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the RPA community will naturally wish to adapt its technology and identity to high-end conflict. If not present already, a “critical mass” of RPA operators of ever-increasing rank will soon emerge within the Air Force, able to advocate internally for more investment in remotely piloted systems across the full spectrum of warfare.

Just like everything else in this uncertain world, the Air Force is evolving. 

Each service will have to demonstrate how investment in its deterrent posture improves the US position in the larger international market space, and sustains the US economy by creating jobs at home. The latter is critical not only to maintaining our national aviation industrial-technical base but also to preserving congressional appropriations and support for Air Force modernization.

According to the report, currently the projected composition of the convergent force structure is approximately  2,300 total aircraft, overwhelmingly dominated by F-35s (a total buy of 1,763), with less than one-tenth (currently projected as 6 percent) long range and less than one-fifth capable of remotely piloted / autonomous operation.

Barring a crisis, the nation will operate on momentum.  Assuming that we are not in a major war, America’s overall investment must be more or less right as long as procurement matches the stated priorities and objectives.

Now you might be wondering, is such a radically different force affordable?

A reasonable estimate suggests that it is. Assuming that aircraft cost scales with weight, a rough-order approximation derived by interpolating data suggests that the proposed force structure of 2,000 aircraft, composed of more platforms of larger size, admittedly increases costs by 15 percent over the projected force structure.

Inclusion of a less stealthy (but potentially quite survivable) blended-wing-body bombers (BWB-B) will measurably advance American aviation.  The report suggests it would probably allow it to dominate commercial platforms for several decades.

NASA’s environmentally responsible aircraft concept. (Reprinted with permission from NASA)

NASA’s environmentally responsible aircraft concept. (Reprinted with permission from NASA)

Don’t think the Air Force isn’t considering the eco-friendly angle, by the way.  The BWB-B could piggyback on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) environmentally responsible aircraft (ERA).  The ERA seeks to build an optionally manned BWB cargo/airliner with double the range/fuel economy over current tube and wing designs at a size entirely consonant with a long-range bomber.

This project would advance the BWB airframe, structures, material, engine technology, and optionally manned technology as well as provide an indirect subsidy of our commercial airline business. The latter, in turn, will mean lower costs for the Air Force.

Saving time, money, lives and the environment.  Sounds like a plan that may yield a lot more advantages than even Lt. Col. Garretson can consider.

The Air Force is also exploring the possibility of having pilots with both manned and remotely piloted experience.  This could create substantial flexibility in rated management and better paths to leadership development.

Such a force provides an attractive option from a political perspective, Lt. Col. Garretson writes, by making the Air Force appear both responsive and visionary. The story is simple, with simple numbers: a combat aircraft fleet of 66 squadrons and 2,000 aircraft – two-thirds of them capable of long-range strike and two-thirds capable of remotely piloted operation – is something that any policy analyst or airpower advocate can explain quickly in simple terms.

This plan, he says, gives the Air Force both competitiveness and a visionary role in the nation’s industrial base. Moreover, it substitutes new projects and “spreads the wealth” across both defense contractors and congressional districts to the extent that it should allow scale-back of the F-35 overcommitment with the least pain.

Simply put: the unmanned way of warfare is the way of the future.  And that’s not such a bad thing.

“If that is where the winds are blowing, let us not fight this jet stream of convergent forces but place ourselves in its tailwind.  Pick the range-balanced force as the guiding star, and move confidently toward the future.” – Lt. Col. Garretson

Information for this article provided by Lt. Col. Garretson, USAF paper titled “A Range-balanced Force”

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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