The Pentagon is working on specific technical and tactical strategies intended to keep drones from being shot out of the sky, to improve mission success and better sustain operations in high-threat areas.
On interesting way to increase drone survivability would simply be to quicken the pace of information and video-feed data processing. The faster gathered intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data can be received, organized and transmitted to identify the points of greatest relevance, the less time a drone may need to fly to accomplish its objective.
This kind of efficiency, massively truncating sensor-to-shooter time by pinpointing moments or objects of pressing relevance, in part comes to fruition through the use of common standards.
Common sets of interoperable internet protocols, software integration and the collective use and maintenance of essential hardware components can preserve and extend the operational life of platforms such as the Global Hawk and Triton. These two drones in particular lend themselves greatly to this kind of technical strategy because, while the Triton is differently engineered with specific sensors and technologies unique to a maritime environment, the Global Hawk and Triton are built upon a common hardware and software foundation.
Right now, there are Air Force-Northrop Grumman efforts to modernize and sustain Global Hawk drones well into the 2040s. The Pentagon is reinforcing this through a Global Hawk-Triton deal with Northrop to provide repair services for common items related to the air vehicles, sensors packages and mission control elements. There are likely many reasons for this, a central one being that technological enhancements are increasingly enabling these drones to out-perform previous mission standards. This is accomplished by reaching much higher levels of image fidelity at vastly longer ranges, enabling fewer drones to effectively accomplish surveillance missions previously slotted for many unmanned systems.
Of course, performing highly-precise ISR at safer ranges improves survivability, to some extent making less-stealthy platforms better performing in high-risk areas. This streamlining is also made manifest by advanced algorithms enabling AI which gather, pool, analyze and organize huge volumes of fast-arriving ISR data. Instead of needing human operators to, for instance, pour through hours of video streamed surveillance of high-value areas, computers can be programmed to quickly identify moments of relevance for commanders and human decision-makers. Using computer analytics, algorithms can bounce new intelligence off of an existing database to identify otherwise difficult to discover details, solve problems, compare and organize seemingly separated data streams simultaneously or present “optimized” courses of action to commanders.
The increased information processing and network proficiency now possible with advanced systems means vulnerability may also be increased as adversaries attempt to jam, intercept or destroy drone signals and targeting technologies. Adversaries have also studied how drones target and destroy areas of interest. As a result, these adversaries have adjusted to new tactics such as obscuring high-value assets such as vehicles and forces beneath various coverings or in rugged terrain. In more advanced cases, adversaries may have learned which shapes and signals are targeted successfully and made adjustments to change heat signatures, external configurations or locations to complicate or confuse drone sensor systems.
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.