The Air Force not only wants more drones, but multi-functional drones able to pursue a wider range of missions from a single platform such as logistical operations, personnel recovery, surveillance and attack.
“When you start looking at the different platforms and mission areas, we have strike and ISR but less on logistics. If you are able to build a UAS system that has mixed capability you will have flexibility to move forward,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a special video interview.
The Air Force Reaper, for instance, can very successfully conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and also increasingly fire a wide range of weapons. The Air Force is even developing the Reaper, and its future replacement, with more weapons including lasers, new air-dropped bombs and air-to-air weapons as well. The Reaper can perform reconnaissance and attack missions, but can it do logistics?
What about Brown’s comment that unmanned aircraft are needed for supply and logistics missions in high-risk areas while under enemy fire? At the moment, manned C-130s perform much of the air-dropping of supplies in so-called “hotzones.” While this has proven successful, it is an extremely high risk, raising the question as to whether cargo-carrying drone aircraft could perform the mission just as successfully. There is, of course, a need for forward combat troops to have food, water, equipment, fuel and of course ammunition. So, what if a large, heavy-lift flying drone were able to deliver combat-crucial supplies?
This technology is here. Not only are there already unmanned fighter jets that have demonstrated an ability to fly, but the technology exists to engineer a large, self-navigating cargo plane. Perhaps an unmanned supply aircraft of heavy-lift drone could be given a destination and then arrive there autonomously. That would certainly reduce risk to airmen. Along the same lines, what about Brown’s comment that drones can be engineered to multi-task. Perhaps the larger, supply carrying drone can be armed with weapons and surveillance cameras. While perhaps not quite so stealthy, an aircraft of this kind could be configured to drop bombs when directed by human operators and perform surveillance and navigation missions while swooping in low altitude areas to drop off critical supplies.
To further extend this reasoning about multi-mission drones, Brown cited the Air Force Research Laboratories’ recent successful flight of a first-of-its-kind flying car.
The first car, called eVTOL for Electric Vertical Take-Off and Flight, may be but a beginning. It is a small cab with extended legs or wheels with what looks like a circular pattern of small drone propellers clearly intended to enable a “hover” capability.
Should this effort be met with continued success, there may be no reason why Humvees or even armored vehicles could one day quickly become airborne to climb mountains, attack enemy supplies and seek to overwhelm forces behind the initial breach area. This brings multi-domain options and could easily extend the reach and scope of attack operations.
Brown even mentioned the use of Iron Man robots to conduct personnel recovery, and for use when moving into heavy enemy fire to recover casualties and evacuate injured warfighters.
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.