“As large manned aircraft age out – particularly the E-3B AWACS and E-8C Joint Stars and some of the others – we are not going to be able to sustain them,” says a senior U.S. Air Force official with daily insight into ISR programs. “We’re running out of avionics and engines on those airplanes. The RC-135 fleet [Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball and Combat Sent] is fine but the other platforms are in trouble. We don’t have a solution in the near term due to the budget crisis. There are no good options or new money. People are struggling to find a way forward. It’s going to cause a change in how they do operations.”
If there is a solution, it may be linked to development of families of smaller unmanned aircraft that can quickly change a variety of payloads that can be applied with great flexibility. And with the possibility that next-generation opponents will have advanced air defenses, these UAVs must be able to take losses without interrupting the flow of intelligence and targeting information.
“The vision is that you can quickly modify another airframe [to replace any loss] to take over and provide the same data,” the Air Force official says. “That’s why the Air Force is sinking its money into advanced sensors for ISR and electronic attack. Rather than single aircraft, it will embrace the swarm concept. I think there will be two components: stealthy combat UAVs and then a non-stealthy truck that we can build in large numbers rather than hoping they will survive. These things are robots and you program your computers to run the robots and let them do their job. You need systems that can land on less-than-finished runways. That’s not hard if you keep them small.”
However, not everyone, particularly those involved in cyberoperations, think that small unmanned, networked, autonomous platforms are going to be on the battlefield anytime soon.
“First, small UAVs can't carry big sensors to provide wide-area surveillance,” says a longtime military and industry veteran of network warfare. “Second, as a cyberwarrior I relish the swarm concept, and someday it may be viable. But distributed arrays are not the near-term solution.”