Lt. Gen. Otto discusses the Air Force small UAS flight plan. Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr.
by AUVSI News
The U.S. Air Force wants to move quickly to deploy small unmanned aircraft into its arsenal, to help bolster a service that, after a quarter-century of continuous combat operations, is now “the smallest, oldest and least ready force in its history.”
According to a new 2016–2036 “flight plan,” the service has so far missed the boat on the small UAS revolution.
“With this nascent capability lying dormant, the Air Force must take significant steps to integrate and institutionalize an airmen-centric family of SUAS systems as exponential force multipliers across the air and cyber domains,” says the flight plan, released May 17.
The flight plan was revealed by Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“The Small UAS Flight Plan outlines a vision and strategy for the continued development, operation and sustainment of SUAS over the next 20 years,” Otto says. “Integrating SUAS into the Air Force’s ISR portfolio enables a more agile force that will help meet future warfighter demands in both permissive and highly contested environments.”
The Air Force has traditionally been the home of large UAS systems, such as the Global Hawk, Sentinel and the Predator family. It does own some smaller systems, but they have largely been left to special tactics teams and used for limited objectives.
“However, SUAS have demonstrated their potential to execute a much broader range of full-spectrum missions in the future,” the flight plan says.
Despite that, the Air Force has no current plans to buy small UAS. Any unit that wants them can buy them, as long as they are cheap enough, but “we must recognize this ad hoc procurement model is an impediment to establishing a healthy, efficient and affordable future SUAS fleet,” the document says.
It also says that a single SUAS program office, attached to a major command, would help with acquiring and maintaining these systems.
Once it has such systems, the Air Force has some big plans for them, including swarming, using them for teaming operations with manned systems and as part of the “loyal wingman” concept where a manned aircraft could control SUAS to expand their surveillance or even strike capabilities.
They could also be used to suppress enemy air defenses; counter small enemy UAS; conduct perch-and-stare missions in remote environments; drop sensors; study the weather and provide over-the-horizon, beyond line of sight reconnaissance, among many others.
In the short term, the document says the Air Force must “apply a substantial focus” toward SUAS research and development. Beyond that, it should focus on increasing manned-unmanned teaming, “while maintaining a central theme of enhancing, not replacing, the airmen within the system.”
In the long term, beyond the next decade, “airmen will find themselves fully integrated while employing multi-role SUAS across the range of Air Force operations,” the flight plan says.
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