The Future is Now : Air Power in the Age of Manned-Unmanned Teaming

Sub Title : Unmanned and manned platforms will operate together in a synergised manner

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2022

Author : Colonel Mandeep Singh

Page No. : 14

Category : Military Affairs

: March 31, 2022

Increasing complexities of future air combat necessitate a new approach to dominate the battlespace paving the way for unmanned systems to be deployed alongside manned platforms, operating in a synergised manner. These artificial intelligence empowered teams are shaping the path for future operations

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have evolved over the years from relatively simple surveillance and reconnaissance platforms to sophisticated and increasingly autonomous system-of-systems that are a key part of any military strategy and tactics. In a significant development, artificial intelligence empowered unmanned systems are now teaming up with manned platforms and are shaping up as the path for future operations in what is commonly called as manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T).

As a concept, MUM-T describes the interaction between humans and uninhabited vehicles at the tactical level for the achievement of specific missions and tasks. It is described as “the synchronised employment of soldier, manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles, robotics and sensors to achieve situational understanding, greater lethality and improved survivability.” Though MUMT is applicable across the land, sea and air domains, it is the air domain that has seen the most advancement and has adopted the concept in a major way. Decades ago, Liddell Hart had visualised unmanned systems on the battlefield of the future, stating:

“Even to-day aircraft are the most effective and economic means of long-range bombardment. And the advent of wireless control of such machines, dispensing with the need for a costly human crew, will immensely augment their advantage.”

United States had experimented with unmanned systems in early 1920’s with N-9 floatplane and Kettering Bug but it was only during the World War II that unmanned systems were used in combat with V-1 and V-2 being the more famous of the many such systems experimented with. But these were simply unmanned system which could not claim to be teamed with a manned system per se. While the use of a Royal Air Force B-17 bomber to attack German submarine pens is claimed as an early example of MUM-T but it was a later use of Interstate TDR-1 attack drone that can be considered to be an early use of manned-unmanned team in combat.

On September 27, 1944, four drones, each armed with a 2,000-pound bomb, flew 55 miles to Bougainville to attack a Japanese anti-aircraft battery established on a beached merchant vessel. One of the TDR-1s was lost at sea, the second crashed 30 yards astern of the gun emplacement, but the bomb failed to detonate while the third probably hit the ship. It was the fourth drone that flew through flak to land dead-centre on target and explode. The drones were remotely controlled by a pilot in a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber accompanying the drones as a television camera mounted in the drone’s nose transmitted images back to a five-inch screen mounted in the Avenger’s rear cockpit from where a pilot used a radio-control to guide the drones. It was a simple but effective method that combined the manned and the unmanned systems effectively to achieve a hit.

Combat operations with the drones continued for the next month. With the range of the attacks extended to 160 miles, STAG One attacked gun installations, bridges, caves, a cargo ship, and a lighthouse. The standard technique was to fly the TDR-1 directly into the target, but on occasion the drone dropped bombs remotely. This was MUM-T at its simplest but most effective.

MUM-T can be executed at different levels with an unmanned platform like a UAV live-streaming video to an attack helicopter or close air support aircraft allowing the crew to have information including visuals of the potential targets, but from a safe distance. This is the most basic form of MUM-T and considered to be Level 1. It only covers the indirect reception of data sent from an uninhabited vehicle though the uninhabited vehicle may transmit the data to several platforms simultaneously.

The other MUMT levels are:

♦             Level-2 covers the direct communication between an uninhabited vehicle and an inhabited platform, the former of which specifically provides data for that platform.

♦             Level-3 control sees the inhabited vehicle not only receiving the direct transmission of data from the uninhabited vehicle, but also controlling that vehicle’s sensor payloads.

♦             Level-4 control allows the inhabited platform to control all aspects of the uninhabited vehicle’s operation sans launch and recovery.

♦             Finally, Level-5 includes all Level-4 functions but with the inhabited aircraft supervising the uninhabited vehicle’s launch and recovery.

Having a MUM-T has some apparent advantages that are.

Decreasing risk – Unmanned platforms will be able to take over the most high-risk tasks, increasing pilot safety. MUM-T allows for control of sensors, change fields of view, and use lasers for ranging and weapons designation with the added potential to fly specific routes and/or reconnaissance patterns. This allows the attack crews to communicate with multiservice UASs that can be sent into high-threat environments, effectively minimizing the amount of time required in the objective area and reducing the risk to both the manned aircraft and aircrew.

Act as a force multiplier – Multiplying airborne capabilities with Remote Carriers flying alongside manned aircraft. These can perform ISR tasks and provide commanders with a clear picture of friendly and enemy force locations. This enables the optimal utilisation of the full range of assets at the disposal of the commanders with minimal risks as enhanced situational awareness to all of the platforms on the battlefield, common data links operating on manned and unmanned, interoperable platforms helps avoid accidents such as mid-air collisions and fratricide incidents

In pursuit of developing MUM-T capabilities, most of the advanced military powers have been experimenting with integration of unmanned and manned systems. Nearer home, China conducted the first trial flight of its latest aircraft the J-20S (or J-20B as it at times called) in November 2021 making it the first twin-seat stealth fighter in the world. While speculations abound about its possible role and employment, it was clarified by Yang Wei, chief designer of the aircraft in late September itself that, ” it would not be a trainer aircraft” and the dual seating is for the enhancement of the aircraft. One possible role is to use the J-20S as a fighter bomber in more complicated combat situations but a more likely and exciting role would be to control loyal wingman-style drones in a manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T).

On the other side of the pacific, the US Army’s McDonnell Douglas/Boeing AH-64D/E Apache/Guardian helicopter fleet is already functional and can carry out MUM-T from Level-2 up to Level-4. Boeing’s Airpower Teaming System (ATS) nicknamed the ‘Loyal Wingman’ is built around a UAV that can be configured for a range of missions and can function with inhabited aircraft. These are not the only MUM-T projects underway as the United States established its first manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) squadron in March 2015 as it teamed  Boeing AH-64D/E Apache helicopters with Textron Systems RQ-7B Shadow UAV in one heavy attack-reconnaissance unit.

In April 2020, MQ-9A Block 5 demonstrated connectivity with U.S. Navy surface ships and aircraft during the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem ’21 exercise in a test to “further incorporate unmanned capabilities in day-to-day fleet operations and battle plans.” Later in the year, in October 2020 MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range UAS teamed up with an Apache AH-64E helicopter and a Shadow RQ-7BV2 Block III tactical UAS to successfully execute a live missile fire.

Russia, the great rival of United States is a late starter in the MUM-T race but has exciting programmes lined up. The recently unveiled Grom UCAV is designed to operate under the control of manned aircraft, specifically Su-35 fourth-generation and Su-57 fifth-generation fighters. Several of these UAVs, capable of flying at speeds of up to 1000km/h (with a cruising speed of 800km/h) and carrying up to 2t of bombs and missiles, would undertake the traditionally risky role of suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), plus engagement of ground and surface targets. Earlier, the S-70 Okhotnik-B UAS flew with Su-57 for the first time in 2019 in a flight that lasted 30 minutes. On this flight, Okhotnik-B flew with a full avionics configuration in an automated mode demonstrating key features for a Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) capability.

As the emerging rival to United States , China is investing in a big way in MUM-T. According to an Indian defence expert, “MUMT will be very much a practiced concept with China, as will be the autonomous attacks using UAS and swarm attacks. It will, therefore, be prudent to expect China to un-roll a full-spectrum MUMT threat in any future conflict.” This view may not exactly be true as China still has a long way to go before it achieves operational MUM-T capabilities. Adding to the difficulties in making evaluate the exact status of the UAV systems and a realistic assessment is the opaque nature of PLA weapons development programmes.

GJ-11 UAV is China’s most technologically impressive UAV but is also the most secretive program and even though the GJ-11 shown at China’s National Day parade was an obvious mock-up, its mere presence at the parade would suggest that it has entered service. However, its exact capabilities regarding MUM-T can only be a matter of speculation. Depending on how widely produced GJ-11 is, it could form an important base of knowledge and development for MUM-T/loyal wingman and the systems tested and verified aboard a mature and in-service GJ-11 fleet could then be duplicated aboard more capable UAV and UCAV designs.

Similarly, the development of J-20S for pairing it with a UAV is still being considered by China. A realistic assessment would be that China is as yet pursuing the MUM-T capabilities but has not honed them as yet. As the annual report of the United States Department of Defence for the year 2021 states. “The PLA considers unmanned systems to be critical intelligentized technologies, and is pursuing greater autonomy for unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles  to enable manned and unmanned hybrid formations, swarm attacks, optimized logistic support, and disaggregated ISR, among other capabilities.”

Considering the varying stages at which the different programmes are, it is apparent that challenges remain in fully operationalising the MUM-T concept. A major challenge in the early days that prevented human-machine teaming was the inability of AI to mirror its human counterpart. Manned-unmanned teaming presents a solution to this complex problem as it combines the critical social intelligence of a human, with the processing speed of a machine. Though the  seemingly apparent incompatibility between a human and a machine may no longer be a challenge for MUM-T,   the manner in which the aerial platforms communicate remains a challenge in operationalising MUM-T.

A simple reason is the wide range of radios/waveforms used across the military enterprise that makes it difficult to ensure interoperability across diverse platforms. One method to overcome this problem was used during a test involving  Gray Eagle demonstration aircraft that carried  multiple radios in diverse wave forms to meet the expanding scope of communications but this approach may not be workable and inbuilt systems would need to be designed to allow intercommunication and interoperability.

In another test, United States Air Force successfully got an F-22, F-35B, and XQ-58A Valkyrie “attritable” drone talking to each other in December 2020, with the Valkyrie using a “gateway ONE” translator system that enabled the aircraft to  communicate with each other using their otherwise incompatible datalinks.

Communications is just one challenge with the capability of on-site handling and processing of information being another challenge for MUM-T as the data processing should be done at the point of interest itself to optimise MUM teaming.

In these hyper times, every development is taken as a breakthrough that will change the way we live. In some fields it may be true but there are still some challenges to be faced and complexities ironed out. One major issue is to define the role and limits of tasks to be performed by unmanned systems. In September 2020, the Pentagon conducted a simulated dogfight between F-16s, and the algorithm won. Despite the victory, there were issues as the system took risks that a human pilot would not and had no awareness of self-preservation. Would this be the norm in the future? Will the UAS carry out tasks which manned systems would not carry out? How and what would be the limits to ‘risks’ defined? DARPA may have stated that AI’s role in lethality is to support humans to make a decision, not replace them but the increasing reliance on autonomous unmanned systems like the newly developed SMASH system to carry out strike missions will continue to push the envelope, blurring the lines between AI and human control.

A major reason for greater reliance on unmanned systems is the increasing complexities of the future air combat that necessitates a new approach to dominate the battlespace paving the way for unmanned systems to be deployed alongside manned platforms, operating in a synergised manner.   These artificial intelligence empowered teams are shaping the path for future operations. The evolution of smarter sensors coupled with automated processing tasks now being performed right at the point of interest are now mature enough to allow more coordinated teamwork between manned and unmanned systems on the battlefield. What seemed to be in the realm of future is getting operationalised at a fast pace and the nature of warfare is no longer changing, it has already changed. It would not be premature to state that for AI driven MUM-T, the future is now.