Air Force leaders are in the early stages of planning the service’s next-generation drone fleet that could reshape the Air Force’s entire fleet and continue to lower the number of airborne pilots, service officials said.
The Air Force’s drone fleet has taken over a much more prominent role in combat operations over the past ten years, but the technologies incorporated into the Air Force’s drone fleet still lag woefully behind the most advanced manned fighters and bombers.
This could change over the next 25 years if the service can execute its Remotely Pilot Aircraft Vector, which spells out the next 25-years of anticipated drone developments.
Col. Ken Callahan, A2 director of remotely piloted aircraft capabilities, said the service wants to see its future drone fleet to incorporate stealth and network capabilities similar to its manned aircraft fleet.
Future Air Force drones will also need to be modular, meaning engineers can exchange sensor payloads when mission requirements change or new technology emerges, Callahan explained.
Some drones will likely get much smaller, as new technology continues to enable platforms to do more functions such as carry sensors at smaller, more compact sizes, he added.
The RPA Vector addresses the changing conceptual landscape as the Air Force continues to shift focus a more challenged or “contested” operating environment that could include advanced Chinese and Russian radar systems.
“Our focus in Iraq and Afghanistan was ground-centric. It was a counter-insurgency, counter terrorism kind of fight,” Callahan said.
While drones and their pilots will continue their focus on surveillance missions, they will also become increasingly cognizant of air-to-air threats and potential engagements, he said.
Callahan explained that drones are not likely to perform air-to-air combat missions over enemy territory at first. However, he did say future air-to-air superiority fighters could very well be unmanned or optionally-manned.
In fact, the Air Force’s new Long Range Strike Bomber is being engineered to fly unmanned and manned missions, senior Air Force officials have said.
Service officials are exploring numerous concepts and researching some of the next-generation aircraft already built by major defense manufacturers, Callahan said.
Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone flew intelligence missions over Pakistan ahead of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Boeing has also unveiled its Phantom Ray, a fighter-sized unmanned combat air vehicle which first flew in 2011. The aircraft has a 50-foot wingspan, can climb to 40,000-feet and reach speeds of Mach .85.
Air Force drone developers and strategist say technological progress over the last ten years has helped the service more fully realize the strategic vision of air power outlined by retired Air Force Col. John Warden.
Warden was known for advocating what came to be described as “effects based” warfare, the concept that a desired battlefield effect could be achieved through a strategic and precise use of air power.
For example, attacking enemy command and control centers, leadership headquarters, or supply lines, could paralyze an enemy without destroying large portions of the infrastructure of the attacked area or killing large numbers of civilians.
“If you look at Warden’s work and go back to the very beginning of air power from WWI to where we are today conceptually, it is about the idea that air power can solve combat problems in a different manner, meaning we don’t need to destroy every force that is in front of us,” Callahan said.
Warden’s air power theories are credited with having influenced military air bombing campaigns in the the first Gulf War, Kosovo and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In particular, the so-called “shock and awe” approach and the “decapitation strikes” of the air campaign in Iraq in 2003 included elements of Warden’s “effects based” air power strategy.
Callahan, who credited Warden for influencing air power theory, said Warden’s vision has largely been achieved and made easier through the advent of unmanned aircraft systems, precision weaponry and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies.
“What you are seeing is the early work that Warden did has been realized,” Callahan explained.