The U.S. Air Force may one day use drones for a variety of missions beyond strike, reconnaissance, and communications, a U.S. Air Force official said last week.
“How they can be used is wide open, if you look at every mission set that we have in the air domain–air domain awareness, C2 [command and control], airlift, combat air forces and how they can team [with drones], rescue,” Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, said at a session on the future of unmanned aircraft at the Air Force Association warfare symposium in Orlando, Fla.”Which mission area out there wouldn’t possibly benefit from manned-unmanned teaming? I don’t think there is one.”
Guastella said that remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) will make enemy targeting of Air Force assets more difficult, as RPAs are able to operate from austere locations. Air moving target indication to supplement Boeing [BA] E-3 AWACS and future E-7 Wedgetail planes also looms.
“Think about having an E-3 or E-7 platform augmented with unmanned systems that are farther in that provide that more distant sensing that all allows it to integrate and provide better air battle management,” said Guastella, an F-16 and A-10 pilot. “Could you use unmanned aircraft to protect high value assets that need to be up and in potential threat environments? Those are all areas worthy of exploration.”
While drones are a possible replacement for manned aircraft in a decade or more, the Air Force needs to address its shortage of pilots, currently more than 2,000, now, Guastella said.
On the command and control front, Dave Alexander, the president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the builder of the MQ-9 Reaper, said that drones will take a leap ahead with the proliferation of low Earth orbit satellites.
On surveillance, while satellites were crucial in helping predict Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, RPAs also may have a role to play in such forecasts.
“The ability to watch someone and attribute bad actors and then make that attribution known to the world–we’ve seen that with the condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Guastella said. “That happened in large part to seeing what they’re doing, predicting it, demonstrating it well beforehand, and then watching it unfold. That’s what our RPA community does. The contribution has been invaluable.”
“There’s over 3,000 RPA operators–pilots, if you will, 1,500 sensors, 1,200 maintainers, and 600 plus on the intelligence side that support the enterprise,” he said.
Guastella said that the Air Force is looking to provide some relief to RPA operators to help them train for potential conflicts with technologically advanced adversaries.
“We’re in high demand in the RPA community,” he said. “Interestingly, unlike other force elements, there is no dwell for them. Most force elements deploy and then come home and dwell and reset and train. There is no relief for that [RPA] community because they’re in such high demand. They’re all in all the time, but we’re fighting hard for the [RPA] community–and this is from [Air Force Chief of Staff] Gen. [Charles Q.] Brown as well–to take some segment of the force, keep it back at home so you can stay home and train, not against the uncontested environment that we see today, but the contested environment where you’re contested kinetically, and you’re also tested in your electronic warfare aspect and your ability to maintain links.”