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Drone Force


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Developments in the unmanned aircraft market through the 2011 AUVSI symposium

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Drone Force

  1. 1. Hasik Analytic LLC Drone Force? Developments in the unmanned aircraft market through this year's AUVSI symposium Defense-Industrial Research Memorandum #2011-05, 26 August 2011 James Hasik +1-512-299-1269 A BRIEF REPORT ON THE CONFERENCE Last week, I attended the annual symposium of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), held this year in Washington DC. In any year, that show alone is occasion enough for me to update my views on the near future of the military robotics business. As I note below, in just the past few weeks, several other developments have made that update all the more important, and for now, particularly focused on aviation. I will cover topics in unmanned maritime and unmanned ground systems at some point in the next few weeks. So here we go. I start by noting some grousing from exhibitors about the apparently sparse attendance this year. As it turns out, that was just the appearance. On checking with the AUVSI staff, I learned that the numbers of both attendees and exhibitors were up from last year. We were in a larger hall than ever before at the DC convention center, so the field only looked thinner than usual. That graduation to the largest hall available in DC itself heralds the maturation of the industry. Another sign of maturity came with who was exhibiting. When I walked the floor four years ago at the event in San Diego, a prospective client groused to me about the preponderance of what we could term me-too aircraft. As he told my colleague and me (and I remember his words well), I just walked past twelve booths, and they all have the same fiberglass-built, straight-winged, pusher-propellered plane as the next. I can't imagine that they're all going to be here in four years. And indeed the shaking-out has gotten underway. Several of those companies that he was describing, who were seemingly pushing yet another close cousin of the plane that Boeing/Insitu
  2. 2. Defense-Industrial Research Memorandum 2011-05 Hasik Analytic LLC has sold very successfully for years now, have decided that they weren't going to outdo the people who invented the category. Perhaps someone yet will, but most have moved on. In their place in the exhibit hall have come systems and subsystems and software suppliers, many not making exclusively for the robotics industry, but just sensing an industry on the rise. In many cases these were brand-name suppliers with bigger and glitzier booths than in years past. One past client of mine told me that he had more prospective suppliers than ever before trying to sell him a better engine, antenna, operating system—you name it—and his is but a forty- person company. Many of those salespeople were just figuring that they should seed some bets around the table. After all, when talking about this business, I keep reminding folks that twenty years ago, General Atomics Aeronautical had just a few dozen staff. Back then, if anyone had told an USAF general that the company would be, by number of airframes and pilot trainees, the Air Force's number- one supplier in twenty years, he could at best have gotten a blank stare. He might have gotten an admonition against self-medication. He certainly wouldn't have gotten much traction from the idea. So it's very hard to know from just where, in any industry supplying the military, the next new-new idea will come. The potential upsides of that uncertainty may be fostering serious optimism. In talking with both attendees and exhibitors throughout the conference, I did sense a slight sense of collective apprehension about looming cuts to American military spending. But I also sensed calm conviction that as budgets are cut, robotics will provide the cost-effective substitutes to previously planned, manned systems. [1] THE PRESENT EVOLUTION OF POLICY I believe that this process will proceed more quickly than many expect: the combination of the financial constraints currently facing many countries in the industrialized world, and the structural impediments to quick reorganization of military forces, may make this almost inevitable. Specifically, while in the long run force structure can decrease a great deal, in the short run troops can only be sacked so fast. As we often read, operations and maintenance spending can stay stubbornly high, unless troops return to garrison and the fleet stays close to home ports. But in that case, the world might be patrolled more cost-effectively by unmanned surveillance and strike systems. Robotics, that is, have real and obvious advantages in overcoming limits in both physics and physiology. [2] And because they are so inexpensive in comparison to many manned alternatives, purchases will be easy to fit within the portions of budgets that are easiest to change in the short-run: development and procurement. Here's an example of how this process is now clearly underway. Just before the AUVSI show got rolling, we learned that US the Navy had finally thrown in the towel on manned signals intelligence aircraft. The service lost one in 2001 to that late Chinese fighter pilot who wanted to play bumper cars in overwater flight, and then failed over several years to develop a long-term replacement in the joint Airborne Common Sensor (ACS) program with the Army. In a paper a few years ago about that fiasco, I asked why the replacements for either the Navy's EP-3 Ares or the Army's RC-12 Guardrail had to be manned. [3] There may have been good reasons why, but as it turns out now, at least some needn't be. From 2015 onwards, the EP-3s will be retired in favor of RQ-4B Global Hawks with signals intelligence payloads. page 2 of 7 26 August 2011
  3. 3. Defense-Industrial Research Memorandum 2011-05 Hasik Analytic LLC I will take that as a sure sign of the future. Another, I think, comes in the report that the various US Combatant Commanders (COCOMs) are constantly requesting more RQs than they can get, and are sore than Central Command gets (expectedly) the lion's share of them. [4] It's an old line by now that the COCOMs are also constantly requesting more nuclear-powered attack submarines than they can get, but there's an important difference. The submarines are generally employed for coastal surveillance, and the COCOMs' requests naturally never come with an offer to pay for the construction of those boats. It's easy to request something impressive that doesn't actually cost you anything. What's notable about RQs, and especially Predator-series aircraft, is that they combine great range and good speed with affordability. Those last few feet of periscope poking from the water are, until a major war starts, the most useful part of the submarine, but they are supported by a multi-billion dollar ship below. That's a shocking expensive proposition for such a short-ranged system. So the more recent demand for unmanned aircraft should be a class of requests that are actually easy to support. Indeed, the mission set is still expanding. The Army and Navy Departments have recently had considerable success in weaponizing the Hunter and the Integrator, two aircraft (like the Predator) meant for quite some time entirely for reconnaissance work. Payload constraints remain problematic, but the case had been made recently that these sorts of aircraft could be modified for one-way missions. Think of them as recoverable missiles: when the target is sufficiently important, the aircraft can be scarified, omitting the need for a separate launch, guidance, and communication system for any small munition onboard. [5] Missile defense has popped up as another possibility. The MDA recently picked the MQ-9 Reaper as its interim Airborne Infrared Systems (ABIR) for tracking rising ballistic missiles. As one quoted official put it, the latent potential was always there with the airplane's sensor; "they never thought to look up." [6] That story is, after all, not so different from the original weaponization of the early Predator. Even survivable in moderately contested airspace is becoming imaginable. As Missy Cummings of MIT has argued, computers think much faster than people, at least when the problem is very well defined. Response to radar illumination from the ground may be that sort of problem—it's at least semi-automatable. [7] As one engineer from SPAWAR asserted to me at the show, one could argue that much of the energy-maneuverability theory is mathematics. That air arms aren't eager today to entrusting more of combat decision-making to automated systems today may be more a matter of policy than technology. Well, maybe. But even if this seems a stretch, consider how some other previously vexing challenges are falling away. Back in 2003, General Hal Hornberg of Air Combat Command identified limitations in aerial refueling and formation flight as the two biggest barriers to wider adoption of drone aircraft at his command. [8] Solutions for both requirements seem well in hand today. THE BUREAUCRATIC POLITICS OF THE PROBLEM And as they are, we could be expecting to see clear signs of more rapid adoption. But the USAF announced just before the conference that it was suspending its effort to find an MQ-X follow-on to the MQ-9, instead seeking more time to reevaluate requirements. So what's going on? page 3 of 7 26 August 2011
  4. 4. Defense-Industrial Research Memorandum 2011-05 Hasik Analytic LLC With the military, however, sometimes the surest sign of flattery is deliberate avoidance. The US Air Force in particular has a long history of protecting its gold watch programs by killing off cost- effective alternatives; the US Navy far less so. In the mid 1990s, while the Tri-Service Stand-0ff Attack Missile (TSSAM) program seemed to be faltering, the Air Force was downplaying the value of its low-cost alternative, the AGM-130, a missile so slightly regarded that the service declined to ever give it a proper name. Meanwhile, the Navy continued to invest in the Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), a weapon of more modest ambitions that the Air Force derided as the "J-Pig", and the Standoff Land Attack Munition (SLAM), a missile that an Air Force colonel I knew once termed "the Navy's very own AGM-130." [9] The fallout from these comparative approaches continued, and well beyond the Air Force's lack of a good munition in between the capabilities of free-fall bombs and cruise missiles. The USAF insisted that it didn't want anything like the RQ-1B, right up until the Army asked for it, whereupon the USAF insisted that it needed it. The Army then got its MQ-1Cs (the Grey Eagles) in part by convincing Defense officials that the Air Force was continuing to pay insufficient attention to the need for dedicated fixed-wing attack aircraft. All the eggs were going into the F-35A basket; another A-10 was incomprehensible. Hedging on the F-35C, however, the Navy ordered up the F-18E, F and now G. And we all know which aircraft are actually flying over the front, even if the JAST/JSF effort has been underway since about 1996. For the US Air Force, though, there's a clear conundrum, rather like that facing the Royal Air Force in maritime patrol. With the MR4 Nimrod finally out of possibility, the service had been just shrugging its shoulders about the mission. When the Royal Navy began suggesting cost- effective approaches (small turboprops, drones, etc.) crewed by the Fleet Air Arm, the RAF got more serious again. The latest idea involves pods and roll-on payloads for C-130s, and there will be more. But none of these are dear to the service's heart, for kit perceived as second-class doesn't sit well with the world's first air force. HOW BUSINESS CAN PUSH POLICY In short, the USAF will continue to be a tough marketing nut to crack, but it will crack. Consider how General Atomics is advertising the MQ-9 Reaper as an interim step before the eventual Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft, or that currently unfunded MQ-X. [10] It's advertising the Avenger as another interim step, but as further capable of carrying a 2000-lb JDAM. Sure, I say, but remember that the Stryker was once the Interim Armored Vehicle, until the Army screwed up its successor by gold-plating it. Eventually, the vehicle from General Dynamics' shelf became the now-and-future combat system. In the long run, or even the short run, this suggests that many of those retiring F-15s and F-16s might be replaced not with twice-as-expensive F-35s, but a-sixth-as-expensive MQ-9s, or some similar aircraft. (I wrote about this extensively two weeks ago in DIRM #4, or Why the F-35 is Looking A Lot Like the F-22 These Days.) The Air Force has mortgaged much of its fighter-flying future to an unaffordable airplane, and is now facing a forced retreat onto more affordable ideas with evolutionary potential. Again, the Navy Department is ahead of the game. As Bill Sweetman reported this week, Navy Under Secretary Robert Work recently directed his two services to explore alternatives to either the F-35B or C, to guard against the possibility that either aircraft sub-program might be cancelled or seriously circumscribed. He specifically directed that the possibility of forthcoming unmanned aircraft (read: Northrop Grumman's UCLASS) be page 4 of 7 26 August 2011
  5. 5. Defense-Industrial Research Memorandum 2011-05 Hasik Analytic LLC considered as partial substitutes. [11] Most of United States' fighters aren't ever used as fighters, but as short-ranged bombers, and the US Air Force in particular has far more fighters than it needs. What's troubling for the silk scarf crowd is the future this portends. Suppose that the F-35 program does encounter, as Bob Work warns, either cancellation or sharp truncation as another silver bullet aircraft. Given the retirement rate of F-15s and -16s, and the construction rate on MQ-9s, in about ten years the USAF could have more unmanned than manned combat aircraft. It already has more unmanned than manned trainee pilots; the material outcome is just a logical outgrowth of that. In the light blue service, that's not widely taken as a happy thought. To make matters worse, the USAF has no real mission for its manned bombers anymore. To force the issue, one wonders whether the Navy and some of its suppliers should offer to take up the long-range bomber mission, either with drones or with P-8s carrying cruise missiles. In the latter case, I'm honestly surprised that I haven't seen those PowerPoint slides from Boeing yet. That would sharpen the Cartwright-Schwartz debate over manned, penetrating, long-range aircraft rather quickly. But frankly, as John Pike put it last month, "the logic that the the next generation bomber should be unmanned is unassailable." [12] The economics will shortly be just too obvious. But is this for real? An air force composed substantially of drones? If it seems too big a change too fast, consider the cycle time. The Predator was just a novel idea in 1991, but many of the big trends in military materiel of the past century or so have taken roughly two decades to work out. I offer this not-quite-scientific, but I think interesting, selection of supporting cases: • Sixteen years (1900–1916) from the first practical submarine (USS Holland) to nearly decisive use by Germany of unrestricted submarine warfare in the First World War • Fifteen years (1903–1918) from the first flight of a heavier-than-aircraft to the organization of that first independent air force, the RAF • Twenty-four years (1918 to 1942) from the commissioning of the first aircraft carrier (HMS Argus) to total acceptance of carriers as the new battle line • Thirteen years (1951–1965) from the first practical military helicopter to massive employment (if somewhat unhappy) in the Battle of Ia Drang • Thirteen years (1978–1991) from the launch of the first GPS satellite to its compelling, almost decisive, use in war. Along the way in these cases, there were in retrospect clear technical dead-ends: seaplane carriers, cruiser-carriers, cruiser-submarines (the French Surcouf). And military forces around the world are still sorting out some organizational issues: just who should fly the big helicopters and the maritime patrol aircraft? There remain big, lingering debates over the suitability of enduring concepts: guns versus missiles on surface warships, manned delivery of nuclear weapons, fixed versus rotary wing gunships, and that whole question of mechanized infantry. [13]. But with a combination of combat success and financial calamity, we may finally have hit the beginning of acceptance—and programmatic acceptance—of combat drones. WORK REMAINING FOR INDUSTRY It must be said that all this could still get screwed up, through overreaching with too-new technology, and ignorance of the policy implications of driving too fast in all directions. At the AUSVI, there were reminders that not all is strictly well. One of the journals available for free at page 5 of 7 26 August 2011
  6. 6. Defense-Industrial Research Memorandum 2011-05 Hasik Analytic LLC the show carried an article comparing the robotics business today to the nuclear power industry in the 1950s: seemingly enormous potential, until a few little meltdowns sent everyone into a tailspin. And during the show itself, that Army RQ-7 Shadow drone collided with a very manned Air Force C-130 cargo plane. Actually, it's said that the C-130 may have run into the RQ-7 from behind. As an unnamed Army official insisted, "we were in complete control up until the collision." [14] Had anyone actually been seriously injured, that might not be mattering now. And of course, there are lots of mission sets that just aren't quite accessible yet, whether for reasons of policy or technology. So what remains to be done? Faster machine learning may be at the top of the list of long-range needs. Faster processors will help, but smarter algorithms are what's really needed. Automated sense-and-avoid will look at a lot more possible at that point, some form of that will be essential to the long-term growth of unmanned aviation. Ground-based sense-and-avoid is getting an endorsement from the Army these days—with its more geographically distributed need for drone operations—but anyone who could actually make this meaningfully autonomous could stand to make a fortune. Smaller sensors with more onboard processing power [15] would provide two big benefits to the customers. The first concerns economizing on demand for scarce satellite bandwidth. The second is a matter of employing more, smaller, less expensive drones, or lessening the payload requirements so that the same drones can fly farther and longer. Persistent surveillance may remain an elusive grail for a long time, but quantumly multiplying on-station time would rather help. Navigation without just GPS will be pretty important, in the long-run, to aircraft survivability and combat success. This doesn't mean navigation without satellite assistance at all, but the manageability of outages. If satellite reception is jammed in multiple transmission bands, drones may be unable either to phone home or get a position fix. That could end the mission pretty quickly. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives. Relatively old-fashioned terrain contour matching (think early-model Tomahawk missiles) may get renewed attention now that the mission-planning workload has dropped: NASA's meter-level terrain map of the Earth is eminently storable on a small device. Image-based navigation is deeply alluring, if not quite ready for deployment. But after two decades in which every Institute of Navigation technical paper was about satellite systems, we're more than beginning to see the development of meaningful partial substitutes. Finally, better power management is a matter related to all the aforementioned needs, but one which will proceed on multiple fronts. Lower-power processors would help. Lower-power sensors would help. Better batteries would help, but then again, those would help a whole lot of things, so the whole world is investing already. Thus progress is in the works. And our collective suspicion that it has been may be feeding the growing sense that the drone force is real. I note how, just today, Inside the Air Force reports assertions from defense industry executives that the USAF is preparing "to shift its acquisition strategy from platform purchases to capability upgrades—creating a future where remotely piloted aircraft could stand to reap the bulk of the fiscal benefits." [16] Contrary to the recent industry-wide messaging, for at least some people in the manned fighter business, it may indeed be time to panic. [17] page 6 of 7 26 August 2011
  7. 7. Defense-Industrial Research Memorandum 2011-05 Hasik Analytic LLC NOTES 1. Philip Ewing also wrote about this last week in "The Defense Industry’s Great Hope: Unmanned systems," DoD Buzz, 17 August 2011 2. I attribute this line to my Mike Nemeth of Zyvex Technologies 3. See "The Crash of the Airborne Common Sensor," available on Slideshare at http:// 4. Amy Butler, "Unmanned Aircraft: Reaping the Benefits," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 15 August 2011, p. 48 5. Stephen Trimble, "Armed and Dangerous," Flight International, 9 August 2011, p. 34 6. Butler, p. 49 7. Caitlin H. Lee, "Armed and Dangerous," Jane's Defence Weekly, 10 August 2011, pp. 29–30 8. General Hal Hornberg, Commander Air Combat Command, in Adam Hebert, "New Horizons for Combat UAVs," Air Force Magazine, December 2003, p. 72 9. I thank Lenny Shapiro of Millenium Systems and Engineering for reminding me of this example 10.Caitlin Harrington Lee, "Interview: Frank Pace, President, Aircraft Systems Group, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.," Jane's Defence Weekly, 10 August 2011, p. 34. Separately, it's fair to ask why the UCLASS is defined as a carrier-launched airborne system. If there is another kind of carrier-launched system, it's not likely an interesting concept. 11. Bill Sweetman, "Navy Official Questions Need for JSF Variants," Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, 25 August 2011. I take slight exception with Sweetman's title. Work doesn't so much seem to be questioning the need for the aircraft as whether it will show up at all. The Navy's budget is not entirely under his control; he's just wisely requesting some consideration of fall-back positions. 12.Colin Clark, "U.S. Doesn't Need Next-Gen Bomber, May Scrap Aircraft Carrier," AOL Defense, 14 July 2011 13.On this last point, I heartily recommend W. Blair Haworth's The Bradley and How It Got That Way: Technology, Institutions, and the Problem of Mechanized Infantry in the United States Army (Praeger, 1999) 14.Nathan Hodge, "U.S. says drone, cargo plane collide over Afghanistan," Wall Street Journal, 18 August 2011 15.Marcus Weisgerber, "USAF wants more processing from onboard sensors," Defense News, 18 August 2011 16."Industry Execs: Expect Air Force Acquisition To Shift To Upgrades," Inside the Air Force, 26 August 2011 17.See Joe Light, "Memo to Staff: Don't Panic," Wall Street Journal, 15 August 2011 page 7 of 7 26 August 2011