In conducting operations over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mexico, Iran and wherever else the U.S. has been flying its unmanned aircraft over the past decade, one thing U.S. forces mostly have not had to worry about is being shot down, hijacked or having their electronics jammed.

As with all good things, this era of uncontested American dominance in the skies will end one day. So what are the Pentagon and the defense industry doing to plan for it? According to several industry and military sources, they are working on various scenarios, although the range of plans remains a closely guarded secret even as technologies and tactics continue to evolve.

Christopher Ames, director of international strategic development at General Atomics, maker of the Predator, says that one way to keep UAVs out of harm's way when operating in potentially hostile environments is to increase their standoff capability “so that you can influence the airspace and the area of interest from a greater distance.” If the aircraft can operate farther out, “then the aircraft themselves don't need to have the same degree of imbued stealth or survivability,” he adds, which has the added benefit of decreasing costs since “stealth” doesn't come cheap.

The U.S. Air Force and Army have been working on wide-area surveillance technologies for years, which expand the “soda straw” views from traditional UAVs, but which lack long-distance standoff capabilities. The Air Force has been flying Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Gorgon Stare over Afghanistan on MQ-9 Reapers since December 2010. The system is made up of two pods, one carrying a sensor ball with five electro-optical cameras for daylight and four infrared cameras for operations at night. The cameras are positioned at different angles to maximize ground coverage by patching together an 80-megapixel image from the various cameras. The second pod features a computer to both process and store images along with a data-link modem, and two pairs of antennas for the Common Data Link and Tactical Common Data Link.

BAE Systems' Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (Argus-IS) is the Army's version of this technology, which marries wide-area coverage of up to 40 sq. km (15.4 sq. mi.) with a 15-cm (5.9-in.)-resolution ground sample distance per pixel.

Still, these capabilities require one thing that is hard to fit on to smaller airframes: onboard power. Steve Reid, the senior vice president and general manager of Textron's AAI, maker of the RQ-7B Shadow, says that keeping successive generations of more-advanced computing equipment running can be an issue with the ever-increasing need for more endurance and longer dwell times. All this will “work a little bit against active jammers and whatnot,” he says. “You also have a small package, physically. Your data links and jammers are going to be in close proximity to one another, so you're not going to be able to get the distance away you might have on a fighter, so you're not essentially jamming yourself or putting some EMI [electromagnetic interference] challenges on your platform.”

Despite the challenges, both executives envision a future slightly different than new generations of multicamera sensor balls. Rather, they spoke of operating swarms of networked UAVs that could both provide surveillance coverage over a wider area of interest, while being capable of handing off tasks to one another if any one node was damaged or compromised. Reid says that if something like a Predator or Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel were flying over contested airspace, “that becomes such a tremendous target and such a significant win for the adversary if they can take it out,” that swarms of smaller UAVs might be better. Having multiple networked assets in the sky creates redundancy, so if one system fails or is destroyed, another can step in and fulfill its mission. “The geometry always enhances your ability to operate,” Reid says, adding that “the more geometry you've got going over the battlefield the more precise your weapons delivery can become.”

Not building a high level of encryption and anti-jamming equipment into the current generation of UAVs was not an accident. It was part of what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the “80% solution,” which in wartime is good enough to get gear downrange that works, albeit less well than desired. AAI's Reid says that 80% mindset “is an excellent acquisition strategy” during wartime, especially as “this was a new technology, so why put out there a fully encrypted mega data link when the technology has to prove itself first?”

Speaking at a C4ISR conference in Arlington, Va., late last year, the Air Force's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance chief, Lt. Gen. Larry James, said he fully expects adversaries to gain access to the kinds of technologies that will allow them to jam radio and satellite communications that keep U.S. UAVs linked to the ground. He added that the Air Force will have to start strategizing about how to counter such threats, and that he is keeping a close eye on the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) aircraft program, since the two services are teaming for unmanned technologies under the AirSea Battle concept.

But it is not only the bigger Predators and Reapers that the military is concerned about. Of the 7,500 UAVs the Pentagon has in its inventory, the Army's hand-launched RQ-11 Raven is by far the most common, with 5,346 buzzing around. Steven Gitlin, a spokesman for Raven manufacturer AeroVironment, adds that the company started introducing a digital data link (DDL) in 2009, and “in addition to enabling beyond line-of-sight operation and a pop-up data network over the battlefield, DDL also enables digital signal encryption. In 2010 we began producing our Puma UAS with DDL, and we are now demonstrating our Wasp UAS with this DDL capability.”

All of this isn't to say that the days of permissive airspace are over—far from it. In fact, most of the missions the U.S. will fly in the foreseeable future will likely occur in permissive airspace, says retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who was the Air Force's first ISR chief. “We need to have a balanced capability to operate remotely piloted aircraft both in permissive airspace and contested airspace,” he says, adding that one of the greatest weaknesses of the fleet is that every platform has to be controlled by an operator on the ground. “Those linkages are vulnerable to jamming. To counter that you need to move toward a greater degree of autonomy, but along with moving to autonomy you'll encounter a variety of policy issues that when you have a man-in-the-loop you don't have to worry about that much.”

Deptula believes that technology is not the issue as much as the organizations that control it. “What we need to be looking at are innovative ways to accomplish the same kinds of outcomes or desired effects with fewer resources: that being dollars expended, personnel required and numbers of systems,” he says. “We also have to think about different ways of doing business. Right now if you want more capability you add more sensors which adds more data collection which now requires greater bandwidth to offboard the data.” The key to reducing the amount of data sent to be collected to the ground (which makes it vulnerable to hacking) lies in processing that information on board and sending back only that which is of interest, and adding greater autonomy to the platform so it doesn't rely on a “man-in-the-loop” to carry out the simplest tasks.

Indeed, autonomy is not just a nifty goal for engineers to achieve. As the Defense Department's fiscal 2011-36 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap says, “Today's unmanned systems require significant human interaction to operate. As these systems continue to demonstrate their military utility, exploit greater quantities of intelligence, and are fielded in greater numbers, the demand for manpower will continue to grow. The appropriate application of autonomy is a key element in reducing this burden.” Particularly at a time when force structure will be strained, more autonomy might be the only way to achieve the level of surveillance that the armed forces desire, and/or require.

And as General Atomics' Ames reminds us, stealth, autonomy and new generations of intelligence-gathering technologies don't come cheap. In the tightening budgets that will mark the next several years, AAI's Reid says, “I think we have to be very careful that we remain sensitive to the price points that have been set, and expectations that have been set by our customers for the relative cost of the technology.” For AAI, which produces smaller UAVs, “it's not 'achieve this mission at any cost' like say the Beast of Kandahar [i.e., the Sentinel], where it costs whatever it costs,” he explains. “We're down in sort of the opposite side of that equation where we have to be concerned with the value.”