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Air Force Plans Next Gen Drone Fleet

by Kris Osborn on June 19, 2014

reaper-nightAir Force leaders are in the early stages of planning the service’s next-generation drone fleet that could reshape the Air Force’s entire fleet and continue to lower the number of airborne pilots, service officials said.

The Air Force’s drone fleet has taken over a much more prominent role in combat operations over the past ten years, but the technologies incorporated into the Air Force’s drone fleet still lag woefully behind the most advanced manned fighters and bombers.

This could change over the next 25 years if the service can execute its Remotely Pilot Aircraft Vector, which spells out the next 25-years of anticipated drone developments.

Col. Ken Callahan, A2 director of remotely piloted aircraft capabilities, said the service wants to see its future drone fleet to incorporate stealth and network capabilities similar to its manned aircraft fleet.

Future Air Force drones will also need to be modular, meaning engineers can exchange sensor payloads when mission requirements change or new technology emerges, Callahan explained.

Some drones will likely get much smaller, as new technology continues to enable platforms to do more functions such as carry sensors at smaller, more compact sizes, he added.

The RPA Vector addresses the changing conceptual landscape as the Air Force continues to shift focus a more challenged or “contested” operating environment that could include advanced Chinese and Russian radar systems.

“Our focus in Iraq and Afghanistan was ground-centric. It was a counter-insurgency, counter terrorism kind of fight,” Callahan said.

While drones and their pilots will continue their focus on surveillance missions, they will also become increasingly cognizant of air-to-air threats and potential engagements, he said.

Callahan explained that drones are not likely to perform air-to-air combat missions over enemy territory at first. However, he did say future air-to-air superiority fighters could very well be unmanned or optionally-manned.

In fact, the Air Force’s new Long Range Strike Bomber is being engineered to fly unmanned and manned missions, senior Air Force officials have said.

Service officials are exploring numerous concepts and researching some of the next-generation aircraft already built by major defense manufacturers, Callahan said.

Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone flew intelligence missions over Pakistan ahead of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Boeing has also unveiled its Phantom Ray, a fighter-sized unmanned combat air vehicle which first flew in 2011. The aircraft has a 50-foot wingspan, can climb to 40,000-feet and reach speeds of Mach .85.

Air Force drone developers and strategist say technological progress over the last ten years has helped the service more fully realize the strategic vision of air power outlined by retired Air Force Col. John Warden.

Warden was known for advocating what came to be described as “effects based” warfare, the concept that a desired battlefield effect could be achieved through a strategic and precise use of air power.

For example, attacking enemy command and control centers, leadership headquarters, or supply lines, could paralyze an enemy without destroying large portions of the infrastructure of the attacked area or killing large numbers of civilians.

“If you look at Warden’s work and go back to the very beginning of air power from WWI to where we are today conceptually, it is about the idea that air power can solve combat problems in a different manner, meaning we don’t need to destroy every force that is in front of us,” Callahan said.

Warden’s air power theories are credited with having influenced military air bombing campaigns in the the first Gulf War, Kosovo and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In particular, the so-called “shock and awe” approach and the “decapitation strikes” of the air campaign in Iraq in 2003 included elements of Warden’s “effects based” air power strategy.

Callahan, who credited Warden for influencing air power theory, said Warden’s vision has largely been achieved and made easier through the advent of unmanned aircraft systems, precision weaponry and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies.

“What you are seeing is the early work that Warden did has been realized,” Callahan explained.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Lance June 19, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Just friken great these egg heads ant to make pilots obsolete by inferior under-armed drones. This has Obama's smell all over it. Drone cannot do a better job than pilots and a F-15 or a F-22 can do a heck of a better job in air to air combat and striking ground targets than some overgrown reaper steal or no steal can ever do.

On the lighter side of machinese taking over the DoD…
Well our B-2s soon w/o out pilots? Next the Skynet funding act is passed then…. KABOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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ronaldo June 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm

I'd say you should put down the bottle before posting.

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nah June 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm

lol they aren't making pilots obsolete, every drone has a pilot. Under armed? If the drones are much cheaper than manned planes and you can put up 3x as many that's more ordnance in the air and more missions. Can a piloted plane do a better job at flying a recon mission for 48 hours straight? No, the pilot will have to take dumps and get tired and fall asleep. In air to air combat yes piloted planes are better at this point. If a pilot is shot down then that is an extremely expensive and terrible thing while drones are cheap to replace.

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kevin June 22, 2014 at 6:59 am

Totally agree, but when we lost that drone over Iran which ended up in China with an extreme negative result of them starting their owe fleet of drones…we should include a self destruct mechanism when sending new technology into harms way. We never should have made that mistake. Technology is moving fast nowadays and we don't need to be fighting against our owe expensive research on new technical designs. They can do they owe work without our help.

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David June 25, 2014 at 10:36 am

China was already developing drones. How do you know the drone in Iran wasn't a Trojan horse? Maybe they scan the software and get viruses or they duplicate the software which has hidden flaws/back doors for exploitation.

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George June 19, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Time to either get back on your meds, or otherwise get your tin-foil hat readjusted.

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blight_ June 20, 2014 at 1:29 am

"Side effects include delusional ranting on internet sites. If you notice these symptoms, throw your computer into the bathtub immediately and consult a physician"

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bdingo June 20, 2014 at 11:23 am

Drones are a great move forward! Pilotless aircraft are the future and you are going the way of the buggy whip. Obama's is pretty sensible to 70% of us..

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IronV June 20, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Thanks for your informed, thoughtful and articulate input. Bravo. But is it comfortable in your Mom's basement?

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David June 21, 2014 at 11:51 am

Simply put, you are incorrect. Even more ironic is that you mention the F-22 which at the moment is limited by the human component. The software limits the plane to perform within human tolerances as a safety precaution.

Humans can only take so many Gs, a drone can theoretically perform maneuvers that would make even the best pilot's head spin.

A drone can loiter for far longer than a pilot.

Without a pilot to consider you can design much more efficient, stealthy, and deadly aircraft.

The key will be the software which as it evolves will eventually turn human pilots into target practice.

If this was obama's doing it would be the first thing he did right. Which is why it is not of his doing. There was a road map laid out for this prior to him.

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crazy June 19, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Flying the plan is easy. The problem is dealing with the unexpected or unplanned. The more intelligence you try to build in to the aircraft the less expendable you make it. The future of airpower should have room for both man and machine.

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Bernard June 19, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Not true, computers get faster and cheaper over time. Eventually the hardware needed run advanced air to air AI will be cheap. In fact it may already be cheap, it could be the software that’s the bottle neck. Once we have a good baseline of such software, that will become cheap too. We still need better optics for a full high resolution 360 view, but that too will come down in cost over time as well.

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NathanS June 20, 2014 at 2:24 am

While true (the best chess player in the world is a computer, and they have faster reactionbtimes), I believe that it allows for a completely new paradigm as well.

You don’t need to out-think the opponent; merely be a SAM site in the sky. In conjunction with several cheap drones that only exist to detect enemy planes.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an ace dog-fighter; having 4+ AIMs perfectly timed to reduce the effectiveness of countermeasures towards you is going to give you trouble.

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David June 21, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Go to windows explorer copy any file you like. Then paste it somewhere else. Then tell me how hard it was to transfer a copy of that file to another destination.

Pretty simple huh?

Planes aren't any less expendable just because you make them smarter. It's easy to duplicate and install software. In fact it is much easier to replace software than human pilots with experience and talent.

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hibeam June 19, 2014 at 11:24 pm

Finally some common sense is starting to creep in. Thank God. Drones are the future. You can't be dragging a bag of bones around up there if you want to prevail.

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John Deere June 20, 2014 at 6:46 am

Indeed. The limiting factor in fighter aircraft is the human at the controls. Remove the human and the aircraft can perform manoeuvres that would leave a meat pilot unconscious.

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AMERICAN BRAD June 20, 2014 at 4:30 am

These drones just showed us an awful work out there!!! I mean check out the news ….ppl r hating it cuz they r not accurate at all plus it kills more innocent ppl than terrorists WTF USAF WTF!!!!! Get better or let the men do it.

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hibeam June 20, 2014 at 10:20 am

In the recent past we dropped gravity bombs on whole cities. Now we drop guided bombs on the turban of individual lunatics. And still there are people like you who demand a perfect result every time.

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Bud Bell June 20, 2014 at 8:09 am

An Air Campaign Plan begins with ISR. If you are going to use U-2s for that purpose, you must protect that resource because there is a pilot flying it. To protect that aircraft for a long duration (typical U-2 mission profile) requires Combat Air Patrol (CAP), typically F-15,F-16, or F-22, which have short duration time on station, which requires tankers to refuel them, which requires AWACS to extend their situational awareness. Add all that up, and the number of sorties to support a single U-2 mission quickly grows to a surprising number. I am a firm believer that some missions require a human in the loop! However, we can save resources for better use if we use RPAs for high-risk ISR collection. RPA/ISR technology is improving to the point where a pilot may not "always" be needed.

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hibeam June 20, 2014 at 10:24 am

In the not too distant future our machines will be more intelligent than we are. Embrace it. It is inevitable. There is nothing magical about that analog meat computer inside your noggin. Maybe we can elect one of them as president? My toaster could do a better job than the guy we have right now.

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frank June 21, 2014 at 3:24 am

Awwhh, you were doing so good, making rational statements that I almost thought you had matured. Then you go and ruin it by going off topic and pointless political statements. Try and keep on topic if you want to play with the big boys,

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Ray June 20, 2014 at 12:14 pm

As for Air to Air potential, multiple A2A combat drones with networked radar, intelligence, and Command (presuming jamming can be reliably overcome), would be hard to beat. Drones could well out perform the current G limitations of piloted vehicles. Using multiple air vehicles with sensors to plot, anticipate and negate threats would give incredible tactical advantage.

Simple imaginings: use a B-1 or B-2 with multiple drone launch capabilities to form swarms of A2A and ground attack platforms. Expensive engineering in the short term but potential payoff in performance and life saving could be astounding.

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Bud Bell June 20, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Ultimately, I agree. There is the near-future and the real future. It depends on your age, perspective, and experience. I would like to see what I described in my life time. And, I hope you realize your vision in yours.

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Rob C. June 24, 2014 at 11:58 am

This has been in the cards for years, there always been way to push the envelop to be able to do more and out perform the next guy. Next wave or generation aircraft will have higher percentage of tel-operated aircraft and manned aircraft. Once technology get there, the properly be small percentage of manned aircraft in the combat role. Air force with its budget has to adjust to these realities.

Do I like it, i don't know. The challenge of flight was for man go to the sky and be flying. Now he being pulled down from it. Civilian flight is slowly becoming exclusive, there less small airports, airliners are becoming highly automated. Good percentage of airlines pilots come from military background, which made them better pilots in the civilian side of things. That will change, no mount of simulator training can replace being in the hot seat in the air.

Combat is dangerous, its makes sense to try replace a pilot with someone remotely controlling vehicle to keep them save. I'm just crazy about us as people being more detached from effects of war, when it becomes more distant, person can end up caring left if you've gone war or not.

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Rob C, June 24, 2014 at 12:00 pm

ment last statement "I'm just "NOT" crazy about us as people being more detatched from from the effects of war,"

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Reno June 24, 2014 at 2:31 pm

I do not agree with a lot of drones. Yeah they are useful but what about all of the people that want to really fly a jet?

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Retired Mike June 25, 2014 at 8:40 pm

Drones do a good job as a second tier layer. But they all rely on satellites and GPS. In a major situation with an enemy, they can take out your GPS and you are dead in the water. No trained pilots to take the battle to the enemy. Don't put all your eggs in one basket.

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NathanS June 26, 2014 at 12:55 am

That’s actually incorrect. The latest drones all have inertial guidance systems, and are even being fitted with ground-scan guidance systems to determine location based on terrain (like the type used by the Tomahawk cruise missiles).

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Benjaaz June 25, 2014 at 11:20 pm

A friend of mine's son graduated from the Air Force Academy about 6 years ago. Only about 15% of his fighter class became jockeys, the rest went to the drone program.

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