When discussing the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), it is often too easy to equate such an innovative concept to the New Generation Fighter (NGF). As mentioned in previous articles, FCAS is a complete combat System of Systems leveraging the collaborative capabilities of connected assets. In this article, we will reflect on some of its key components.
Western air forces, even the most modern ones, are facing two major trends. The rise of Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) is leading to more complex and challenging operational environments and at the same time we have seen a decline in the numbers of increasingly sophisticated Western combat aircraft, meaning fewer assets are available for operational duty. When both trends combined, Western air forces are at risk of not being able to field sufficient combat mass to defeat an adversary’s IADS. Teaming of manned combat aircraft with unmanned systems is one way of addressing this situation, whilst bringing the additional benefit of reducing the risk to the pilots. To effectively orchestrate the use of these assets, there is a strong push for Manned-Unmanned Teaming technologies, a field in which Airbus holds a leading position.
Combat missions are primary intended use of Manned-Unmanned Teaming. Purposely designed and built, yet modular, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) known as Remote Carriers (RCs), will team with tomorrow’s NGF and even upgraded in‑service jets such as the Eurofighter. With packs of RCs teaming with combat aircraft, we will provide the augmented combat mass needed in highly contested environments. This will be achieved in a flexible manner depending on the scenario, given the incremental nature of capabilities provided by RCs. An increase in effectiveness will be achieved by opening new fields of tactics based on collaborative combat and the use of deception and numerical superiority to disrupt and overwhelm the opponent. Efficiency will be improved by ensuring that the required mix of capabilities for a given mission is available. Manned assets can remain at a safer distance, whilst closer RCs will deal with the threats, thus keeping the pilots out of harm’s way and increasing the manned platforms’ survivability.
RCs will act as both remote sensors and effectors, due to their ability to carry a wide range of payloads. These will include Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) equipment as well as kinetic and non-kinetic effectors. RCs will therefore support and perform a wide variety of missions including Air-to-Air Combat, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance, Airborne Electronic Attack or Strike. In a flexible manner, the right assets will be chosen and configured according to the task at hand.
To provide these ground-breaking capabilities, Airbus is taking an innovative approach when designing RCs. They will be a family of air vehicles, with sizes ranging from several hundred kilograms, for expendable ones, to several tons, for the more sophisticated loyal wingman type. Airbus, together with its industrial partners, is currently analysing this spectrum within the FCAS Joint Concept Study to determine the most suitable designs, which will be further developed into the Next Generation Weapon System. All RCs will follow the overarching rule of increased commonality and modularity to achieve maximum cost effectiveness.
The below video highlights how RCs teaming with manned assets will play a key role in scenarios where a highly contested environment must be penetrated. Notice how the RCs are used for a variety of roles, acting as force multipliers for the fighter aircraft.
For decades, Airbus has been providing and operating unmanned aerial systems for military and institutional customers. In 2019, as a “vote of confidence”, four nations (France, Germany, Italy and Spain) designated Airbus as the prime contractor for the development of the future European Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (MALE RPAS) programme.
Airbus has a successful history in developing UAV technology. The Barracuda Agile UAV, which first flew in 2006, provided in-depth understanding of high-speed drones and autonomous operations demonstrating several new technologies. In October 2018, with the trust of the German customer, Airbus demonstrated a successful cooperation of DT-25 target drones and a LearJet aircraft, clearing some of the key challenges related to Manned-Unmanned Teaming. Airbus continues to invest in advanced communications and teaming intelligence, with the next big milestone being a multi-domain demonstration planned for 2022.
The below video summarises what Airbus has so far achieved in the field of Manned-Unmanned Teaming, including the 2018 flight test over the Baltic Sea and the 2019 dual mission group demonstration. The future ambition for multi mission group operations is also presented.
Airbus’ technological roadmap to make Manned-Unmanned Teaming a reality focuses on several areas. Firstly, the unmanned assets need to be able to communicate with the manned assets and amongst each other in an agile and robust way. For this reason, we are developing advanced data link solutions in conjunction with the wider Multi-Domain Combat Cloud, another key element of FCAS to be detailed in a later article. Secondly, efficient use of packs of manned and unmanned vehicles requires coordination and optimisation and may vary from one mission to the next. Hence Airbus is developing AI-based teaming intelligence concepts and algorithms, including swarming and distributed intelligence. Finally, we are preparing airframe solutions for the future unmanned systems, building on our experience in both UAVs and combat aircraft, but also leveraging pack the skills of our FCAS partners. Once these building blocks are put together, a whole new world of opportunities will open up, challenging today’s technological and doctrinal paradigms.
The possible applications of Manned-Unmanned Teaming nevertheless, go beyond combat scenarios. Simplified cooperation of piloted and pilotless assets can also prove beneficial in fields such as Maritime Patrol or Search and Rescue missions, where already in-service unmanned aerial systems could vastly improve the manned platforms’ situational awareness. Airbus Helicopters is also looking at teaming combat helicopters with rotary wing drones, which could dramatically increase their survivability and lethality. Given the multi-domain nature of the combat cloud, teaming with manned or unmanned land or marine-based assets is also a potential opportunity.
Today Airbus is at the forefront of developments in Manned-Unmanned Teaming, having already successfully demonstrated leading technological as well as industrial capabilities. The benefits brought forward by this technology will boost capabilities of both piloted and pilotless aircraft. Manned-unmanned teaming is truly a case in point where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.