Manned-Unmanned Teaming – Part II: Evolving Towards the Planned Force Structure through Converting Legacy Manned Platforms

June 16, 2022

Tapping into ‘In Reach’ Capacity

An expanded utilization of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will allow the Air Force to optimize operational performance, force survivability and reduce cost per desired effect if effective manned-unmanned teaming (MUMT) can be achieved. The potential to convert legacy manned platforms available within existing force structures using autonomous and robotic control technologies presents the Air Force with an ‘in-reach’ capacity to expand operational capabilities with UAS for a wider scope of missions at relatively lower cost than new acquisitions with reduced lead times to deployment. Converting legacy manned platforms into UAS can serve as a vital learning curve for the Air Force by enriching thinking on future force planning from a MUMT perspective that includes the evolution of concept of operations (CONOPS) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) together with the supporting infrastructure and network capabilities essential to it. 

Expanding the Use of UAS through Platform Conversion

The Air Force aspires to a warfighting capability where, assisted by a robust adaptive mission planning capability, teams of manned and unmanned systems interact and execute missions collaboratively. UAS are indispensable in allowing combat and scout capabilities to be projected forward at increasing range and speed, particularly as areas of operation (AOO) are enlarged. By extending the line-of-sight for weapons systems, UAS are vital for enhancing the targeting spectrum and make possible the earlier identification of threats and decision points, lower force exposure to hostile fires and, crucially, compress sensor-to-shooter timelines. With the increasing reliance on extended operating ranges, if UAS can be advanced to perform more complex tasks and maximize limited windows of connectivity for data transfer, their employment can be expanded across a wider scope of mission profiles.

Advances in autonomous mission control technology is making it possible for UAS to perform more complex functions such as formation flying and position holding necessary to, for example, execute air-to-air refuelling missions. Robotic cockpit control technology on the other hand has allowed an unmanned F-16 aircraft to take off, fly and land in fully autonomous mode and dynamically adjust mission tasking priorities while executing a strike mission against a pre-planned target in collaboration with a manned counterpart. Lessons learned here are extendable across the wider fleet of manned aircraft operated by the Air Force that can potentially be converted into UAS with enhanced mission capabilities. Expanding the mission scope of UAS beyond the intelligence, surveillance, tracking and reconnaissance (ISTAR) and strike functions they have been primarily utilized for until now presents tremendous potential to support the mission command more dynamically in the years ahead.

The advantages of converting legacy airframes into UAS are three-fold: Firstly, a significant operational return is made possible with minimal capital investment because legacy airframes are already paid for. Conversion can extend service life or reactivate retired or stowed away platforms back into the operational inventory without the requirement for additional pilots. Secondly, as legacy aircraft are converted into UAS, it becomes possible to insert modular technologies that expands the capability package available on platforms. It therefore becomes possible to meet changing operational needs with increased agility by rapidly adapting converted UAS to specific mission requirements. Thirdly, exploiting ‘in-reach’ capacity through conversion and repurposing can allow the Air Force to exploit existing force structures in ways that support the development of more effective MUMT.

Advancing MUMT Strategically

The absorption of UAS technology from a MUMT perspective relates not only to what the Air Forces buys and considerations of system interoperability and user interfaces but more fundamentally to how it operates. Effective MUMT, imperative to the development of a network-centric fighting force, must be able to provide unit commanders with enhanced combat capacity through delivering improved situational awareness and economy of force at reduced operating cost. Yet inducting UAS into operational service more readily is possible only as fast as doctrines, CONOPs and TTPs can be evolved and the necessary supporting infrastructure and network capabilities made available for operator training, live exercises and, ultimately, operational deployment to forward theatres. The conversion of existing manned aircraft into UAS with expanded mission scopes will be a change driver for concept-level requirements.

Operator-led experimentation and feedback generated in the process of modifying existing inventories will also cultivate expertise and lead to knowledge discovery relevant to the design and development of future UAS that incorporates MUMT into design-level consideration. The notion of MUMT will change with the arrival of warfare paradigms such as joint all domain command and control (JADC2), where MUMT ties directly to new concepts relating to command and control (C2) and battle management (BM). The ability to link legacy force structures with the planned force structure through converting existing platforms into UAS therefore provides vital assistance to the Air Force for advancing MUMT within an evolutionary framework that is synchronized with the transition towards a new way of warfare with increasing levels of automation more broadly.

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