Artificial Intelligence Enabled Air Forces

Sub Title : AI will be amongst the foremost technologies that will impact military aviation in the next few years

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 3 Jul/Aug 2019

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Page No. : 21

Category : Military Technology

: July 31, 2019

Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be amongst the foremost technologies that will impact military aviation in the next few years. It will  be a part the next generation hybrid, rotary and fixed wing unmanned systems and challenge the conventional monolithic systems thus redefining air power strategy

There is a strong belief among both major and smaller Air Forces that AI and other associated technologies will be at the core of any future air and space warfare; it will transform the way Air Forces will conduct future operations, manage human resources, and supervise organizations. A number of Air Forces are investing in AI-enabled aerial and space platforms and the United States, Russia, China, France, and Japan are the leaders. Some smaller Air Forces are also adding such platforms and technologies in their inventories as force multipliers.

United States Air Force

In April 2019, the US Air Force announced the ‘Science and Technology Strategy: Strengthening USAF Science and Technology for 2030 and Beyond’ which aims to ‘develop and deliver disruptive innovations’ to ensure national defence. The Strategy acknowledges that the future battle spaces and operating environment will be highly complex, unpredictable and contested, and under such circumstances high-end platforms should be supplemented with swarms of ‘inexpensive low-end systems.’ These will feature ‘adaptability, rapid upgradability, and the capacity to absorb losses that manned systems cannot’. Further, by ‘leveraging advances in artificial intelligence, low-cost sensors, and networked communications, low-end systems can restore the agility to attack adversary weaknesses in unexpected ways by exploiting numbers and complexity’.

In May 2019, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced a partnership contract with Massachusetts Institute of Technology on AI projects to support decision making, maintenance and logistics, talent management, medical readiness, situational awareness, business operations and disaster relief. The USAF has allocated $15 million per year for development such technologies.

The US Air Force new AI program called ‘Skyborg’ can fly an unmanned aircraft with limited human interaction. It has been noted that it ‘will be able to autonomously operate a prototype ‘loyal wingman’ drone, such as the Kratos XQ-58A, by 2021 and be able to fly an actual “fighter-like aircraft” two years after that. The larger goal is to integrate this system into various unmanned planes in the future and eventually turn it into a digital co-pilot to help human aviators in manned platforms. The Air Force Research Laboratory has noted that Skyborg would fit well into the 2018 USAF Artificial Intelligence Strategy and the 2019 Executive Order of Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence (AI) as also provide for the immediate operational need for the force.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing Gremlins, as small as micro-drones and shaped like missiles, which can be dropped from planes and perform reconnaissance over vast areas. Likewise, over a hundred 3D-printed disposable Perdix drones each weighing a few hundred grams were released from F/A-18 fighter through dispensers used for flares. These can potentially ‘suppress enemy air defences by acting as decoys or jammers or by locating radar so they can be destroyed’.

British Royal Air Force

The British Royal Air Force is investing in swarm technology and the plans envisage a fleet of drones designed to ‘overwhelm an enemy’s air defences, allowing other aircraft to slip through and strike targets with impunity’. According to U.K. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, it is planned to constitute a ‘concept unit’ within the Royal Air Force that will be equipped with hundreds of flying drones “capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defences.” The drones would be linked to a common network and driven by artificial intelligence to identify and then attack enemy defences. The British MoD has allocated £7 million (US $9 million) toward creating the unit which is expected to be operational by the end of the year 2019.

U.K.’s local drone industry has had an unsuccessful endeavour and the Thales Watchkeeper drone, similar to the MQ-1 Predator drone, is —five years behind schedule. In their pursuit to develop swarm drone technology UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) organised a swarming drone ‘hackathon’. Although the activity is not meant for ‘developing attack swarms, but new ways to help emergency services deal with wildfires.’

Russian Air Force

There is a strong belief in Russia that development of artificial intelligence is a national security priority and President Vladimir Putin has observed that “Artificial intelligence is the future…It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world,” Russia’s budget for AI-specific research and development has been increasing over the years.

In May 2019, the Russian Air Force announced that Su-25SM3 attack aircraft will be hosting elements of AI for targeting i.e. the onboard AI-enabled systems would be able to select targets without pilot participation. Furthermore, the AI will also help the aircraft to ‘make the optimal route to the target and the trajectory of the weapon.’ The Russian Air Force also hopes to use AI-enabled forward air controllers who will determine and select the “type of weapon with which it is best to destroy the adversary’s equipment and personnel and will also distinguish our own personnel from theirs.”

In 2017, it was announced that the Russian government was planning to spend about $419 million on AI related R&D by 2020. It is now planned to double the spending during 2019–2021; $287 million for leading research centres and start-ups; $145 million to develop products, services and platforms; and $287 million for technology at the extreme degree of readiness.

PLA Air Force

China is a leader of the commercial drone industry and has invested in a number of swarm drone technologies.  Also, the civilian drone technology programmes are closely associated with the military. China has showcased its prowess in this domain by launching hundreds of drones in the air. For instance, in May 2019, during the opening ceremony of the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2019, more than 500 drones controlled by a single computer were made to dance to a mesmerized audience.

Guangdong-based Zhuhai Ziyan UAV company has developed an intelligent swarming attack technology which enables as many as 10 unmanned helicopter drones to autonomously form up into a swarm and the 10 drones can be a combination of different types, including those that can drop proximity explosive mortar shells, while others can carry grenade launchers, or make suicide attacks

China is developing solar powered drones and plans to position these in ‘near space’ a spatial region between 20 and 99 kilometres altitude from the earth’s surface. In June 2017, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASTC) conducted a test flight of its first solar powered drone the ‘Caihong’ (Rainbow). It flew to a height of 65,000 feet and can be used by both civilian authorities and the military.

Similarly, in September 2018, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) announced the successful flight of ‘Morning Star’, a superlight solar-powered UAV (18.9 kilograms) which cruised at an altitude of more than 20,000 meters. Likewise, China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CSIC) is working to create a telecommunication network based on Solar Powered UAVs (SPUAV).

Indian Air Force

The Indian Air Force is closely following developments in the field of AI-enabled platforms and drones. Early this year, India placed orders for 54 Israeli HAROP attack drones. These will supplement the existing inventory of 110 such drones which are now designated as P-4. These are equipped with electro-optical sensors to loiter over high-value military targets such as surveillance bases and radar stations before exploding them.

Similarly, a collaborative UAV project involving US Air Force Research Laboratory and India’s Defence Research and Development Organization is being explored. However, it is not known if the DARPA’s Gremlins program, mentioned earlier is the one under consideration. It will be possible to launch and recover reusable drone swarms using the C-130J and C-17 aircraft.

The Indian Air Force is also experimenting Drone Swarms and recently conducted a competition and invited start-ups to present models of their platforms for operations in the Pokhran desert. Team Newspace Research and Technologies is one such start-up which is hoping to make their mark.

Bharat Electronics Limited, a public sector undertaking, has developed a Drone Guard System (DGS) which can detect, track and neutralise the intruding drones. The System utilises RF spectrum to detect the drone and

EO-IR sensor to track the drone continuously.

Concluding Thoughts

AI will be a part the next generation hybrid, rotary and fixed wing unmanned systems and challenge the conventional monolithic systems thus redefining air power strategy. The future Military Industrial Complex will be led by AI and other related technologies. National laboratories, universities, research institutions, innovation and incubation centres, private companies and entrepreneurs will be central to the transformation of the Air Forces.

Perhaps, what is worrisome is that non-state actors now have access to such cheap yet lethal technologies particularly when they operate drones in swarms which present a new threat for Air Forces.