Skunk Works Sees Value in MUM-T, Autonomous Aircraft
By: April Carson
According to Lockheed Martin, teams of autonomous aircraft working in tandem with a crewed plane are far more effective than the so-called "loyal wingman" method, in which a piloted aircraft works together with only one similarly equipped, autonomous multimission airplane—or so it seems. It also determined that combining expensive but durable uncrewed systems with less pricey ones was more cost-effective.
The company's findings are based on a series of simulations it ran comparing various mixes of manned and unmanned aircraft working together in various missions. In the simulations, the crews and autonomous systems worked together to complete a set of tasks, including air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and electronic warfare.
"We are going to do it for the rest of our lives—we will always be pursuing perfection," John Clark, the new leader of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Programs branch, or Skunk Works, told Gizmodo. "I believe in it with my entire heart." According to Clark, who has worked at the ADP department in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and unmanned aircraft operations for his entire career, he has been running the unit since April when previous general manager Jeff Babione retired.
In May, the US military awarded Lockheed Martin an $8 billion contract to produce its next generation of stealth fighters, the F-35s. The new jets are a huge part of the company's future, and they will likely be what keeps it in business for decades to come. But that doesn't mean that Lockheed Martin is resting on its laurels. The company is still looking for ways to innovate and stay ahead of the curve.
The idea is the same as that promoted by the Air Force's Next Generation Air Dominance initiative, which it refers to a "family" of systems that can work together to destroy a high-level opponent. The term MUM-T has come to be used in the business world to describe manned-unmanned teaming.
With an eye toward the “value proposition,” Clark added, Lockheed Martin has used its “pretty formidable operational analysis” skill to examine a number of ideas for future air combat.
The firm determined that combining a high-end crewed aircraft with a variety of uncrewed types "matched" in speed and stealth, as well as a range of less expensive or even expendable platforms, offered the greatest combination against a peer adversary's air defenses. Clark said that the unmanned planes operate best when they are "detached," rather than "attached," so they can function independently. He stated that the freedom of movement is required for the uncrewed aircraft.
“I have the sense that it'll be very difficult for her to score any points against a peer adversary in the next 10 days,” Clark added. “That's where you're going to make a difference.”
“These team members, who are unoccupied, we can take more risk with them... Being able to acquire better intelligence data, or if we truly need to destroy an important command-and-control node in the adversary's air capability, perhaps these systems—even though they're higher-end—will go on a one-way mission to ensure that system is destroyed. And that opens up a lot of other possibilities.”
According to the expert, when you formed a distributed team, you got the best results in the study. “And when that dispersed team was functioning with their own particular responsibilities,” Clark added.
He compared a well-drilled soccer team that covers a wide area and moves the ball toward the goal to a team of youngsters all crowded around the ball. He observed that doing so draws defenders' attention to where the ball is.
The Green Berets would then call in an “adjunct” of the team, a highly secretive platform that would fly ahead of the formation with four or so AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) to destroy enemy fighters. It was referred to as a "remote weapon station" for manned aircraft even further back.
The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, said that the service's top commander has initiated a conops expansion plan for Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD). The CONOPS, in which you have systems that are signature matched—that is, speed-matched—with the main aircraft isn't new; it was previously described by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. The Air Force is taking a hard look at the F-35B, which will be used to create the first fifth-generation Marine Corps aircraft.“So you'll be able to get them back again because they'll be better equipped. ” At the same time, low-cost attritable planes would also join the formation, making their loss or deliberate destruction bearable. He drew a distinction between these terms: attritables are more expensive than expendables.
“There's a chance there for cost savings with disposable aircraft, but they must be survivability matched, which means while they may not stay up with the formation's fastest members, they won't give away where to look for the rest of the team," he added.
According to one analysis, the human pilot in the formation shouldn't have to do much work because he or she already has a "pretty heavy burden" handling the air battle. So, Clark added, the level of autonomy for the other jets must be high.
"We have a lot of things to figure out about the aircraft," says Mike Leland, vice president for airborne intelligence at Lockheed Martin. "The missions it may be tasked with—such as electronic warfare, enemy air defenses suppression, and secure communications—are still up in the air."
“You'll be looking at two to four of these adjunct systems in a basic formation,” he stated. “But the problem is: where do you draw the line," because there are numerous multipliable nodes that are all interacting with one another.”
“I'm not sure,” he continued. “Maybe some of those systems are around NGAD, but there could be certain systems with IRSTs [infrared search-and-track devices] on them that are farther ahead, providing information and cuing being sent back to the fleet; or maybe they have small AMTI [air moving target indication] radars on them giving a picture of the air flowing back to other systems with weapons that work in conjunction with NGAD.”
"The lines of the distributed team become a little bit fuzzy," Clark added, especially when satellites or surface vessels are used as sensing devices.
“We're looking at things bigger than the loyal wingman,” he said. “To connect these systems together and focus more on data, we have to capitalize on everything in JADO [joint all-domain operations]... remember that two distinct domains were involved when a customer visited your site: What was most relevant?”
It is important for the team to know what type of operations and tactics will be carried out by the collaborative aircraft, as well as whether they'll get a second chance at utilizing them. “Saturation is important for us,” Clark said. “There's no second chance in a lot of these scenarios.”
In these cases, the crewed aircraft “fails spectacularly” with an “explosive end.” We've considered situations in which the uncrewed plane "truly denouces," and we take advantage of everything it has up until that point.
The takeaways are that the JADO environment is incredibly complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We must tailor our tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to fit the situation.
Nobody disputes that the future air battle will be chaotic and intense. "There aren't enough weapons near the fight," Clark said. He explained, The collaborative formation draws additional weapons closer to the target, and "weapons are more efficient" when they are closer to their objective. When that's the case, he added, less may go wrong—fewer are detected, shot down, jammed, or go off course.
The fifth-generation aircraft of today must keep their weapons within the plane to be stealthy, according to Clark, and unmanned adjuncts may be an additional magazine. The fourth-generation F-15EX, however, will have to fire from considerably further back than usual because their survival is jeopardized by the previous method of firing missiles at long range.
“Expendables,” the official wrote, “… have a lower price point. We're looking at methods to get them out there much sooner, so that people in the Pacific can have that tool in their arsenal should they ever need it.”
The deputy secretary said the full concept, in the medium term—meaning "within a few decades"—could be completed with operational ships. It fits well with the USAF's agile combat employment concept because unmanned aircraft might operate from a number of bases.
In the meantime, he said, there are a number of programs in development that could help with the short-term goal. The Navy is working on an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system, better known as UCLASS. This system would use a reusable, stealthy unmanned air vehicle to conduct long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions as well as precision strikes. It would be "a big step in the right direction," Wilson said.
This study was published on Airforcemag.com.
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