The Pentagon has big plans for the Air Force’s Global Hawk and the Navy’s Triton drones. These drones could soon be zooming in on moving targets and threats from even higher altitudes than before, using improved sensor range and resolution. They could also be networking real time data and video feeds across a wider sphere of air, surface and land nodes and extending mission dwell time over high-value areas. All of these upgrades are part of the Pentagon’s rationale for adding more than $600 million to the 2021 budget for both drones.
Part of the Air Force and Navy’s continued emphasis upon larger drones such as the Global Hawk and Triton, despite the changing threat environment and advent of smaller and stealthier drones, is due to a series of interesting factors contributing to their continued added value. Of course, with endurance and high altitudes, these larger drones bring survivability advantages, despite potentially being more vulnerable to certain kinds of advanced air defenses when compared with stealthier drones or swarms of mini-drones operating with built-in redundancy.
Much of this pertains not only to advancing technologies for the platforms, but also tactical adaptations intended to improve mission effectiveness and survivability for the drones. Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of U.S. Forces Europe, told reporters last year that senior U.S. military leaders are now amidst a decided effort to increase mission survivability for combat drones operating in high-risk areas. When addressing the issue of how an MQ-9 Reaper was shot down over Yemen in recent years, Harrigian emphasized that the Air Force is working on making drone operations less predictable to enemies.
Being less predictable may involve a number of interesting tactics, such as varying routes or surveillance locations to confuse potential adversaries about which areas are of greatest interest. It could also mean changing altitude, dwell-time or mission frequency, as well. In addition, there are a host of possible methods through which drones might become more survivable, including longer-range, higher fidelity sensors and weapons and, perhaps of greatest significance, network “hardening” against hacking attempts or various intrusions. Operating at greater altitudes naturally makes a drone more survivable, and fast-increasing sensor resolution can enable clearer surveillance images.
Faster and more efficient information processing is yet another possible way to make drone flights less predictable. For instance, algorithms can increasingly make calculations and perform analyses regarding video feed input much more quickly to identify moments of relevance and transmit time sensitive data without having to catalogue hours and hours of data. Networking drones to other ground and air platforms can also reduce the need for dwell time in a certain area, therefore decreasing risk and vulnerability to enemy fire. This is of particular significance, given the Pentagon’s well-known Joint All Domain Command and Control program which seeks to increase connectivity and data transmission between drones, fighter jets, bombers and ground assets such as command and control centers or even ground platforms such as armored vehicles. Finally, more dispersed, networked operations can both enable surveillance while also exploding drones to less risk.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.