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U.S. Air Force Chief Scientist: Stealth Drones and Killer Swarms Could Be Coming Soon

The Air Force Chief Scientist told Scout Warrior future drones will have better sensors and be more stealthy, autonomous and lethal.

The drones of tomorrow will be stealthier, faster, more computerized, equipped for electronic warfare, more lethal, more autonomous and, in some cases, able to deploy as swarming groups of mini-drones, according to the Air Force’s Chief Scientist.

“The ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) side will get a lot smarter. With the next generation, you will see UAVs that are faster, more maneuverable and maybe stealthy. You will see them accompanying fighters with extra weapons, EW (electronic warfare), countermeasures and even lasers on board,” Air Force Chief Scientist Greg Zacharias told Scout Warrior in an interview.
Some of these anticipated developments were forecasted in a 2014 Air Force report called RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) Vector designed to anticipate and prepare for future drone developments over the coming 25 years. However, the rapid pace of technological change has sped up and, to some extent, changed the timeline and mission scope for drones outlined in the report. 

Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy: 

The processing speeds of computers and algorithms aimed at increasing autonomous activities have continued to evolve at an alarming rate, creating a fast-moving circumstance wherein drones will increasingly take on more and more functions by themselves, Zacharias explained.

Computer algorithms will enable drones to conduct a much wider range of functions without needing human intervention, such as sensing, targeting, weapons adjustments and sensor payload movements, ranges and capabilities, he added.

Developments with “artificial intelligence,” (AI) will better enable unmanned platforms to organize, interpret and integrate functions independently such as ISR filtering, sensor manipulation, maneuvering, navigation and targeting adjustments.  In essence, emerging computer technology will better enable drones to make more decisions and perform more functions by themselves.

The beginning of this phenomenon is evidenced in the computers and sensor technologies of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; the aircraft uses a technique known as “sensor fusion” wherein information from multiple sensors is organized, interpreted and presented to pilots on a single screen. 

Digital mapping, ISR information from the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System and targeting data from its Electro-Optical Targeting System are not dispersed across multiple screens which pilots try to view simultaneously. Fast evolving sensor technology, which allows for an ability to more closely view targets and tactically relevant information from increasingly farther distances, will continue to enable and improve this trending phenomenon.

One of the largest consequences of AI will likely lead to a scenario wherein multiple humans will no longer need to control a single drone – rather multiple drones will be controlled by a single human performing command and control functions.

“People will function as air-traffic controllers rather than pilots, using smart, independent platforms. A person does command and control and drones execute functions. The resource allocation will be done by humans as higher level systems managers,” Zacharias explained.

As a result, drones will increasingly be capable of working more closely with nearby manned aircraft, almost functioning like a co-pilot in the cockpit and massively expanding the mission scope of a fighter jet or other aircraft able to control targeting, sensors and weapons functions from the air nearby.

“Decision aides will be in the cockpit (of a nearby fighter jet or aircraft) and platform oriented autonomous systems will function like a wing man, for instance, that might be carrying extra weapons, helping to defend or performing ISR tasks,” Zacharias said. “We will get beyond simple guidance and control and will get into tactics and execution.”

Drones could lead the way into higher-risk areas in order to reduce risks for manned aircraft, test and challenged next-generation enemy air defenses and greatly increase the ISR and weapons ability of any given mission.

In addition, drones will become more capable of air-to-air maneuvers and attacks and no longer be primarily engineered for air-to-ground attacks. In fact, early conceptual renderings of 6th generation fighter jets and the Air Force’s in-development Long Range Strike-Bomber are being engineered for unmanned flight as well as piloted flight.  

Nevertheless, although drones and unmanned fighters will rapidly become faster and more manueverable, algorithms may not soon progress to the point where unmanned systems can respond or react to unanticipated developments in a dynamic, fast-changing environment the way a human brain could. At the same time, advances in long-range sensor technology will continue to enable aircraft to see enemies at much longer distances, massively decreasing the need for drones or unmanned systems to be able to dogfight in mid-air. 

During the last decade and a half of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces experienced uncontested air superiority, drones were used almost exclusively for air-to-ground attacks against insurgent fighters on the run, compounds, weapons caches, bunkers and other strategically vital targets. As the Air Force looks to the future, it aims to be capable of using drones as a key part of successfully engaging near-peer competitors and potential adversaries with technological ability able to rival the U.S. edge.

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