Friday, February 23, 2024

For cooperative combat drones, the technological and operational challenges are on the scale of the expected benefits

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For a majority of public opinion, including many military personnel, the future of combat drones is part of a linear evolution that has been underway for around forty years. It is true that during this period, drones have essentially gained in capabilities with increased autonomy, speed and carrying capacities, and with increasingly efficient sensors and effectors. And it is clear that the latest versions of the Reaper have little to do with the first version of the Predator, and even less with the light drones used by the IDF in 1982 in Syria to locate DCA sites. However, future developments in combat drones, in particular the arrival of cooperative combat systems such as European Remote Carriers or American Loyal Wingmen, require technological, doctrinal and capacity developments that are out of all proportion to what was done previously. linear manner in the past. And according to the Mitchell Institute , which submitted a 40-page study on the subject to the Pentagon, the technological and operational leaps necessary to achieve this milestone are commensurate with the benefits expected by the US Air Force and the all Western armies.

Let us recall that for the US Air Force, the design of new generation cooperative combat drones, intended to evolve alongside and for the benefit of new generation combat aircraft such as the F-35A and the future NGAD, represents a pillar strategic capability to be able to cope, in the future, with the rise in power of the Chinese air forces, as is also the case for the US Navy regarding its future fleet of autonomous ships. In the vision proposed by Franck Kendall, the current Secretary of the Air Force, these drones will indeed make it possible to extend the detection and engagement capabilities of piloted aircraft, as well as to protect aircraft and crews if necessary, so to increase its effectiveness, including in numerical inferiority. To achieve this, the US Air Force, through its Research Lab, and in cooperation with DARPA and manufacturers, has made a significant effort for several years, both to develop drone models meeting future needs, but also to design AI-led piloting and cooperation systems to control these unmanned aircraft.

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The technologies envisaged by the US Air Force to keep Chinese air power under control are still under development, and some, such as cooperative combat drones, are still far from being operational.

However, for the Mitchell Institute, the plan is far from being there to achieve the objectives targeted by the US Air Force. Indeed, according to the American Think Tank, the main issues and difficulties that these programs will face are not based on the performance or combat capabilities of these new drones, which today often focus the attention of the media and decision-makers. political, but on their ability to act and interact with piloted aircraft and especially with their crews, including in a very dynamic and intense operational context. However, this capacity brings with it many difficulties far from being resolved to date, and sometimes even poorly understood by the designers of these programs. Thus, the arrival of these autonomous systems will considerably increase the workload of the crews, to the point of creating a gap comparable to that which took place during the transition from second generation combat aircraft to those of the third generation, with the addition of numerous detection systems such as radar, and communication, as well as new weapon systems, significantly overloading the work of the crews, to the point of having to, as in the case of the F-4 Phantom, F-14 Tomcat and F-111 Ardvaark, add a crew member to specifically deal with these new systems, giving rise to a new specialty, that of weapon systems officer or OSA.

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Fabrice Wolf
Fabrice Wolf
A former French naval aeronautics pilot, Fabrice is the editor and main author of the site. His areas of expertise are military aeronautics, defense economics, air and submarine warfare, and Akita inu.

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