Source: flight global, DARPA, War is Boring
The US Air Force is developing the capability to overwhelm the integrated air defence systems of Iran, North Korea, Russia or China with tens of thousands of small and relatively cheap small unmanned aircraft acting as jammers, decoys, cameras and “kamikazes”.
Col Travis “Flare” Burdine, the air force’s division chief for remotely piloted aircraft operations at the Pentagon, is preparing to unveil the air force’s first comprehensive vision statement relating to smaller unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS).
The air force would launch its drones from heavy bombers, and whichever ones have not been struck by an expensive surface-to-air missiles (SAM) would be picked up the back of a Lockheed Martin C-130 turboprop transport aircraft.
“I need a stealth bomber that’s going to get close, and then it’s going to drop a whole bunch of smalls – some are decoys, some are jammers, some are [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] looking for where the SAMs are. Some of them are kamikaze airplanes that are going to kamikaze into those SAMs, and they’re cheap. You have maybe 100 or 1,000 surface-to-air missiles, but we’re going to hit you with 10,000 smalls, not 10,000 MQ-9s. That’s why we want smalls.”
There are several programs which will help the air force achieve its vision of swarming, highly-automated aircraft cheap enough to build in large quantities
- DARPA Gremlins project – seeks to launch low-cost UAS in volleys and recover them in the back of a C-130.
- “low-cost attritable strike UAS demonstration” broad agency announcement that was released in June 2015, which seeks aircraft that are high-performance but essentially expendable if needed.
- DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) program aims to remove limitations around the number of swarming drones and enable more complex operations with new algorithms and software for existing unmanned aircraft that would extend mission capabilities and improve U.S. forces’ ability to conduct operations in denied or contested airspace. CODE researchers seek to create a modular software architecture beyond the current state of the art that is resilient to bandwidth limitations and communications disruptions yet compatible with existing standards and amenable to affordable retrofit into existing platforms.
- The US Air force is also considering launch concepts like the “arsenal plane”, which could be based on a Boeing B-1B or the B52.
- In the middle of June 2015, a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter deployed a drone roughly the size of a soda can and weighing just one pound. The drone was called “Perdix.” It was a product of the Strategic Capabilities Office, a secretive Pentagon organization, formed in 2012, whose job is to find new ways to deploy existing weapons. As part of the Northern Edge war game in June, 2015 fighters launched Perdix drones 72 times. After deploying, a swarm of potentially dozens of the Perdix robots connect via radio datalink — and pursue their objective.
An unmodified F-16 could deploy up 30 Perdixes — 30 is the flare capacity of the standard ALE-47 countermeasures dispenser — making the smaller drones much harder to destroy and potentially much more effective.
Missile variants could be turned into drone deployment systems.
Low-cost SUAS could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000, which puts the air force back on the right side of the cost-curve, if one is shot down by a $1 million missile, like from the Russian S-300 and S-400 integrated air defense systems.