Letting Slip the Drones of (Air) War

Written by: Adrian Douglas Arcoleo

In September, a government official revealed that an MQ-9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) conducted its first air-to-air kill. The event took place in a controlled simulation against another small, unmanned aerial vehicle using an infrared, or heat-seeking, short-range missile, most likely an AIM-9 Sidewinder.

Col. Julian Cheater, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, advertised the test as a proof-of-concept, to improve the survivability of the MQ-9 in high threat environments. “We develop those tactics, techniques, and procedures to make us survivable in those types of environments and, if we do this correctly, we can survive against some serious threats against normal air players out there,” Col. Cheater said in an interview with Military.com at the Air Force Association Air, Space, and Cyberspace conference. “We will go participate in ‘Red Flag’ exercises, and we will drop weapons in testing environments to make sure that we can fight against those type of adversaries.”

While the focus may be on the flexible integration of MQ-9s into greater multi-domain war effort, this test also hints at the next steps in unmanned aerial warfare. One of the greatest limitations of modern, manned stealth aircraft is its limited internal capacity. These aircraft can carry more on the external frame of the aircraft but it would degrade the aircraft’s overall stealth capability. 

This is where the “Loyal Wingman” concept comes in. 5th generation aircraft combined with advanced software algorithms could act as controllers for less sophisticated drones or even unmanned 4th generation fighters. These drones could act as missile or bomb carriers, allowing the 5th generation aircraft to utilize advanced radars and sensors to find threats and deploy their wingmen to persecute them. The drones could also act as a screen, protecting the pilots and 5th generation assets by sending in unmanned assets first, or even in lieu of manned fighters altogether.

The US military has taken concrete steps toward the wingman concept, officially launching the “Loyal Wingman” concept via a Request For Information in mid-2015. The Army has also integrated several Apache helicopters with drone interfaces which allow the gunships’ crews to coordinate with their MQ-9 counterparts. Drone company Kratos is also expected to test their wingman drone, the XQ-58A “Valkyrie,” sometime later this year.

Additionally, the concept of Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUT) was recently tested by Airbus. The testing occurred in ate September off the coast of Germany in a controlled environment, and involved five Airbus built target drones being controlled from a mission commander inside a manned aircraft in flight. While Airbus did not specify which aircraft was controlling the drones, their video demonstrating the event suggested that a fighter was controlling the drones. Whether that is true or just a hint at the intention of Airbus remains to be seen; however, the implications of MUT development indicate it being a force multiplier to mission commanders allowing for greater situational awareness and improved flexibility.

Once matured, however, MUT or the wingman concept will relieve pressures on the already stretched US military. Increasing the amount of autonomous or wingman drones will free up vital manned fighters and allow the US military to maintain their footprint across the world. If tensions were to rise between the US and emerging threats such as Iran, Russia, or China, then the US would be able to more effectively leverage their limited 5th Generation fighter assets by pairing them with unmanned or even autonomous companions. In the case of an all out war, the 5th Generation fighters may find themselves running out of missiles before running out of targets. Implementing these wingman missile carriers into the total force would serve to alleviate those concerns.             Analysts, however, are wary of putting the cart before the horse here. Any attempt to link unmanned drones to other systems will be subject to advanced adversary electronic warfare (EW) assets. Jamming of communications, data-links, and GPS, all expected targets of a near-peer-adversary, would hamper the ability for these systems to operate together. The solution to operating in dense EW environments, however, could lie with autonomous flight and advancing Artificial Intelligence. Less inputs needed from the pilot to control these drones would mean less opportunities for jamming. It might be a few more years before we see the wingman concept fully realized but the writing is on the wall. The first drone air-to-air kill certainly won’t be the last.