The widespread introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles to the battlefield during the last decade has been called revolutionary. But their applications so far have mostly been in the reconnaissance and surveillance realm, with only a handful of aircraft able to fire weapons.
Military leaders are beginning think about concepts for the third-generation UAVs. In the future, they will want the drones to do a lot more than peer down on adversaries.
The Air Force sees a world in 15 to 20 years where all its aircraft have an unmanned element, said Col. Eric S. Mathewson, director of the unmanned aerial systems task force at Air Force headquarters.
The Predator and Reaper aircraft carrying out operations today are considered the second-generation unmanned aerial vehicles. The Air Force is already looking at what comes next. It sees a time when every mission the service conducts has an unmanned variant, Mathewson said at the Army Aviation Association of America unmanned systems symposium.
The third-generation drone the Air Force envisions will do airlift, resupply, electronic attack, strike and aerial refueling. However, it only wants to build one workhorse medium to large UAV to do all these missions. This third-generation UAV will have basic flight controls and power systems, but "its guts will be empty. It's a payload agnostic aircraft," he said.
The new drone could be an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform one day, and an aerial refueler the next. Or instead of fuel, it could have supplies placed in its hold and be flown to remote bases. A weapon system module for strike missions could also be swapped in when necessary.
"It does nothing. It does everything," Mathewson said. The service wants to spend the bulk of its money on the modular payloads instead of the aircraft itself, he added.
He likened the concept to an iPhone, a service oriented product in which outsiders such as contractors supply applications rapidly in response to the consumers' needs.
"This is where we're going. This is what we want to do as far as this interoperable architecture," he added. "Hopefully all the services can come together and work on that."
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Glenn M. Walters, deputy director for resources and acquisitions for the Joint Staff, J8, warned against using old business practices for building UAVs. Models shouldn't be in the inventory for 30 years as some other equipment. If a production line is started, it shouldn't last more than five years, he said. Then the aircraft should be redesigned.
"That's the philosophy we need to get to because the battlefield changes a lot quicker than that, and we need to keep up," Walters said.
In the near term, the fight in Afghanistan is accelerating resupply as a new UAV mission. Remote outposts that cannot be served by fixed-wing aircraft and a shortage of helicopter pilots are pushing the military to explore the use of automated rotary-wing logistics aircraft.
Gen. James F. Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. James Mattis, commander of Joint Forces Command, along with officials from the U.S. Transportation Command, are spearheading an effort to speed a vertical take-off and lift capability into the field. Some aircraft have already been tested in Afghanistan, Gen. Duncan McNabb, Transcom commander, told Washington, D.C.-based reporters. Dropping supplies by parachute is the traditional way to resupply troops in hard-to-reach posts, he noted. But a UAV alternative could be "beneficial," he said. Air drops are a one-way trip, he noted.
"For us, the biggest issue using air drop to get stuff in is not getting the stuff in, but getting the stuff back out." The soldiers or marines on the ground may not care about returning items. They just want to receive needed supplies. …