The Air Force could be the most challenged of the United States military services in the Pentagon’s push toward decentralized weapon systems because the air service has benefited from having dominant capabilities and, thus, is most resistant to fundamental change, according to a key Pentagon executive.

Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) Director William Roper said Tuesday in the early days of the Cold War, Pentagon leaders designed a conventional architecture that emphasized maximally-centralized functions of architecture so they could be recycled over and over. He gave satellites, Global Positioning System and stealth fighters as examples.

Small drones, such as this Perdix micro UAV, are being tested in swarms. (Credit: Marc Selinger/Defense Daily)
Small drones, such as this Perdix micro UAV, are being tested in swarms. Photo: Defense Daily.

Roper said to adapt for the future, DoD needs to get away from centrally-designed, single-point- of-failure systems. One example of a decentralized system, according to Roper, is a program called Perdix, which are autonomous micro-drones capable of low-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and other missions. They can be air-, sea- or ground-launched and operate in both small and large swarms to perform missions, according to the SCO.

Perdix, in late 2016, performed a demonstration with help from Naval Air Systems Command. The demonstrations was one of the first examples of DoD using teams of small, inexpensive autonomous systems to perform missions once achieved only by large, expensive ones.

Roper said one reason the Air Force is resistant to change is, for example, it hasn’t faced the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile used by the Navy. Roper said the Air Force has benefited from stealth, though he warned that it can no longer be the “easy button.”

Decentralizing systems means DoD is focusing on teams. Roper gave an example of a program that teams a ghost fleet of expendable boats with a larger, manned, ship like a destroyer. DoD loves teaming, he said, because it keeps warfighters safe by positioning machines to take the brunt of an opening conflict. This layer of unmanned teaming with a manned system, Roper said, provides expendability.

Future contested airspace is pushing DoD toward teaming. Roper said, previously, the Pentagon would build expensive platforms with the expectation they would return home. Now in an era of contested airspace, Roper said DoD views the expectation of a system returning as a huge constraint. Expecting a system to return is neither as “freeing,” he said, nor as simple as throwing something away.

As SCO works with the services to transition Perdix into existing programs of record, it is also partnering with Defense Industrial Unit-Experimental to find companies capable of accurately replicating Perdix using the MIT Lincoln Laboratory design, according to a DoD statement. Its goal is to produce Perdix at scale in batches of up to 1,000.

Roper’s remarks came at an Air Force Association event. The SCO is where scientists and engineers take military systems that do one thing and make them do something completely different, according to DoD.