A new report from the Mitchell Institute calls on the Air Force to expand its use of autonomous aircraft to match growing capabilities from adversaries and meet capability gaps created by slow-moving programs such as the F-35.  

Senior officials from the Air Force and DARPA discussed the latest report Tuesday and said they are considering more options, including the new Distributed Battle Management program, needed to team manned and unmanned aircraft together to meet pressing combat airpower needs.

Officials discuss the new Mitchel Institute study on manned-unmanned aircraft for the Air Force. Photo: Matthew Beinart.
Officials discuss the new Mitchel Institute study on manned-unmanned aircraft for the Air Force. Photo: Matthew Beinart.

“Autonomy, processing power and collaborative information exchange. This is is not new. But to to introduce this concept to fill the gap in capacity and capability, until modernization can really advance, it’s going to be crawl, walk, run,” Lawrence Stutzriem, the Mitchell Institute’s director of research, told attendees at an event for the report. “The concept of manned-unmanned teaming is the quickest way, the cheapest way to fill that gap.”

Stutzriem, an author on the policy paper, affirmed that the Air Force should prioritize building autonomous capabilities for portions of its fleet over moving to more remotely-piloted aircraft, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs.

The report calls for the Air Force to begin deploying supplemental artificial intelligence capabilities for aircraft as a way to meet the most pressing capability needs while other modernization programs continue to be delayed.

“Manned-unmanned teaming right now is not a replacement for modernization programs like the B-21 or the F-35. Those are already far delayed. And you might say we’re paying for misjudgements of the past. Peer competition is back,” Stutzriem said.

Doug Birkey, Mitchell Institute executive director and another author of the study, said the Air Force is working with DARPA on the Distributed Battle Management Program to meet operational level capabilities and allow for software upgrades to be downloaded onto entire autonomous fleets instantaneously.

“It’s a program that initially puts together an encompassing mission picture for all assets, manned and unmanned. Once you launch, it manages tasks and it allows the flight to engage in highly comm-degraded areas,” Birkey said.

Maj. Gen. William Cooley, commander of Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), said his office is working to integrate technology now on 4th and 5th generation aircraft to avoid air-to-air collisions once made autonomous.

“We’re in robust discussions with the F-35 for this, because there’s tremendous savings that could come from those sort of autonomous systems,” Cooley said.

AFRL officials are considering first teaming manned F-16’s with unmanned versions, but must first run through case studies before making the move official, according to Cooley.

“That’s a terrific idea, but we have to look at that from a business case analysis. Some of the challenges would be around pulling those out, making them flightworthy and then having to sustain those. It is going to take some time to build up the trust level with any aircraft that we do this with,” Cooley said.

Tim Grayson, director of DARPA’s strategic technology office, said Distributed Battle Management would allow the warfighters the ability to bring together autonomous systems with manned aircraft seamlessly.

“What we’re trying to do at DARPA right is what we’ve coined ‘mosaic warfare.’ This is our vision of where a warfighter can show up in a combat situation and have any number of different piece parts, whether manned or unmanned, that he or she can put together into a force package and execute almost on the fly,” Grayson said.

Birkey reiterated at the event that a move to more unmanned aircraft could save costs for the Air Force and allow outdated aircraft to be made autonomous and then put in reserves for attrition purposes, rather than retiring whole fleets.

“With your frontline manned assets, before they’re wholly retired they would go to this unmanned status. And then they would still be very useful. We’re going to retire B-1’s, theoretically, in the 2030’s, and we all know we need more range and payload in the Air Force. Why are we going to get rid of jets that are already bought and paid for when we could revert them to this unmanned status. Then you’d have this bench capability that is costing you a whole lot,” Birkey said.