Unmanned and Smart

Increased effectiveness of manned-unmanned pairing will change war-fighting

Mandeep Singh retdCol Mandeep Singh (retd)

Liddell Hart, the grand old master strategist had said, “Even today aircraft are the most effective and economic means of long-range bombardment. And the advent of wireless control of such machines, dispensing with the need for a costly human crew, will immensely augment their advantage.” His prophecy may not have come true in his lifetime but the use of unmanned systems in almost all recent conflicts, including the Nagorno-Karabakh and the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflicts, has shown that in increasingly complex and technology driven battlespace it is the unmanned systems that hold the promise to provide a breakthrough.

Unmanned systems have proliferated rapidly and their use has only increased in recent years to an extent that for the first time in its history, in 2011, the United States Air Force (USAF) trained more UAV pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. Similarly, in 2019 there were more vacancies for drone pilots in the US Air Force than there were for pilots of traditional manned aircraft. Even the induction of unmanned systems has seen a major increase. This is partly due to the increased effectiveness of unmanned systems and partly because of increasing cost of manned aircraft, which makes it difficult for air forces to maintain the required mass. Following the lead, USAF Secretary Frank Kendall revealed on March 7, 2023, that the USAF was planning to field 200 Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) stealth fighter aircraft and 1,000 drones, known as Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCAs) in the coming years. The CCAs will be paired with the NGAD and F-35 stealth aircraft, wherein each manned fighter will reportedly fly with a pair of CCAs thus giving the figure of 1,000 CCAs (two CCAs per 200 NGAD platforms and an additional two for each of 300 F-35s). This mix of manned and unmanned systems is expected to provide the USAF an affordable mass and be cost-effective.

On the other side of the globe, China is also working on a programme wherein the twin-seat version of its most advanced fighter jet, the J-20, is expected to operate with a (as yet unspecified) number of drones with the second seat of J-20 used to control the ‘wingman’ drones. The swarm of drones, each of which could carry between four to 10 precision-guided missiles, will increase the firepower of the J-20 even if the aircraft has just four to six ground-strike weapons. The J-20, with its loyal swarm of drones could carry out early-warning and combat reconnaissance missions also. Similar trends, of plans to induct a mix of manned and unmanned systems, can be observed in other areas ranging from Europe to Korea and Australia.


Manned vs Unmanned

Before discussing the trends and their implications, here is a look at the concept of operating manned and unmanned assets. Manned-Unmanned Teaming (M-UMT has been defined by the United States Army Aviation Centre (USA ACE) as “the synchronised employment of soldier, manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles, robotics, and sensors to achieve enhanced situational understanding, greater lethality, and improved survivability.”

The M-UMT operates on five levels. At the most basic level there is only the indirect reception of data sent from an uninhabited vehicle to a manned platform. For example, the UAV can live-stream video to an attack helicopter or close air support aircraft allowing the crew to have information including visuals of the potential targets, but from a safe distance. This can be done by the UAV to a single or multiple manned platforms simultaneously.

At Level-2 there is direct communication between an uninhabited vehicle and an inhabited platform, the former provides data specifically for the manned platform while at Level-3, not only does the inhabited vehicle receive direct transmission of data from the uninhabited vehicle, it also controls that vehicle’s sensor payloads. The degree of teaming further increases at Level 4 as inhabited platform can now control all aspects of the uninhabited vehicle’s operation sans launch and recovery. At the highest level of teaming, the manned aerial platform has total control, i.e., it controls all Level-4 functions with the inhabited aircraft supervising the uninhabited vehicle’s launch and recovery also.



It is generally believed that domination of air is essential for success in ground operations. In recent times, achieving and preserving air dominance is becoming more difficult with the air space becoming increasingly contested. Drones have come to become an influential player in the conduct of air operations and offer a means of denying and achieving air dominance in the near future. But drones in themselves will not be able to achieve the desired end state on their own and need to conduct collaborative operations with crewed aircraft.

Another important factor is the need for technologically and numerically smaller air force to have the capability to operate against a superior air force in contested airspaces. To illustrate, the USAF’s current force design reportedly falls far short of the requirements to deter and prevail against Chinese aggression, which is considered to be its prime threat. Similar imbalances exist in different regions and theatres and may well prevail in our case too. In such a scenario there is a need to develop innovative operating concepts and appropriate force size, resiliency, and ability to present complex challenges to adversary’s forces. It is believed that a family of unmanned collaborative combat aircraft operating as the M-UMT has the potential to achieve these force design objectives.

The advantages that the M-UMT offer are:

Reduced Costs: On an average, UAVs are 10 per cent cheaper than manned counterparts and require fewer training hours;

Increased Survivability: In action, UAVs will perform the most dangerous tasks while protecting the MAV if required;

Increased Lethality and Reduced Collateral Damages: Drones’ optical sensors allow them to implement ISTAR functions leading to more precise enemy identification and neutralisation. Besides, UCAVs can perform dangerous activities efficiently; and

High Adaptability: UAVs’ activities are not limited to ISTAR and offensive tasks. Indeed, these devices are helpful as decoys, search and rescue operations, electronic attacks and supply transportation and drop.


Early Efforts

It is not a recent phenomenon and has been practiced over the decades with the United States having experimented with such systems in the early 1920s with N-9 floatplane and Kettering Bug but it was only during World War II that they were first used in combat when Nazi Germany used V-1 and V-2 with telling effect, though they were simple unmanned system and were not teamed with a manned system per se. Many consider the use of the Royal Air Force B-17 bomber to attack German submarine pens as the first instance of a M-UMT in operation, but it was the later use of Interstate TDR-1 attack drones in 1944 that can be considered to be a true example of a M-UMT in combat.

On 27 September 1944, four TDR-1 drones accompanied by a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber flew 55 miles to Bougainville to attack a Japanese anti-aircraft battery established on a beached merchant vessel. The drones were armed with a 2,000-pound bomb each and had a television camera mounted in their nose, transmitting images back to a five-inch screen mounted in the Avenger’s rear cockpit where a pilot used a radio-control to guide the drones. The pilot was thus directly receiving data from the drones and was also remotely controlling them. Enroute to the target, one of the TDR-1s was lost at sea while the second crashed 30 yards astern of the gun emplacement with its payload failing to detonate. It is believed that the third drone probably hit the ship but did not cause much damage. It was only the fourth drone that flew through flak to land on the target and explode. The mission was a success after all. What is remarkable about the mission is that not only did the M-UMT work but the mission was also able to achieve Level 3 interoperability.

Similar missions continued after the initial success with the range of attack extending to 160 miles and the targets engaged included gun installations, bridges, caves, a cargo ship and a lighthouse. During these missions, the standard technique was to fly the TDR-1 directly into the target, but on occasion the drone dropped bombs remotely.


Conceptual Studies

Notwithstanding the early use of manned and unmanned systems working as a team, formal studies and preliminary investigations into the MUM-T concept began in 1997 with a series of Concept Evaluation Programs titled MUM I, II, III, and IV, led by the United States Army’s Air Mobility Battle Lab at Fort Rucker, Alabama with the aim to evaluate the impact of MUM-T on the efficiency, effectiveness, survivability, and timeliness of the air weapons team, specifically while conducting tactical reconnaissance missions.

The objective of these studies was also to determine how many UAS could be controlled at once; the workload associated with controlling between one and four UAS at LOI 4; appropriate tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs); and the effectiveness of cognitive decisions aiding systems (CDAS) in reducing workload. The culminating study (MUM IV) showed that the maximum number of UAS that could be controlled while remaining an active shooter was marginally two as managing three UAS took the manned aircraft out of the fight due to extremely high workload. This findings in these studies laid the framework for all future M-UMT research & development and programmes.


A visual depiction of the most established loyal wing-man construct, with unmannedsystems more rigidly tethered to manned platforms USAF
A visual depiction of the most established loyal wing-man construct, with unmanned systems more rigidly tethered to manned platforms USAF

 Challenges Ahead

Developing a successful Manned-Unmanned team presents a challenge in aerospace design, a cutting-edge software that can harnesses high levels of autonomy, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Also, these need to be developed in a cost effective manner so that undue strain is not placed on the budget. The current limitations of the MUM-T concept revolve around the levels of interoperability (LoI) scale, as higher levels of control are typically associated with several detrimental factors, including sensory overload, task saturation and reduced situational awareness.

The main challenges in fielding the M-UMT are:

  • Additional burden on the human crew to manage the UAS;
  • Logistical and cognitive burdens of the MUM-T;
  • Distribution of responsibilities and tasks between manned and unmanned systems;
  • Degree of autonomy for the unmanned system(s); and
  • Ethical issues in giving autonomy to armed UAS.

A major challenge remains in the field of communications and the manner in which the aerial platforms communicate poses a challenge in operationalising MUM-T. The simple reason for this is the wide range of radios/ waveforms used across the military enterprise that makes it difficult to ensure interoperability across diverse platforms.


Early M-UMT Programmes

The first major follow-on to the Concept Evaluation Programs was the Airborne Manned/Unmanned System Technology Demonstration (AMUST‐D) in 2002 that sought to develop and demonstrate new technologies built specifically for interoperability with UAS from manned helicopters. It included the Warfighter’s Associate led by Boeing and the Mobile Commander Associate led by Lockheed Martin. While the Mobile Commander Associate system was never formally fielded, the Warfighter’s Associate system continued development and led to the Hunter Standoff Killer Team (HSKT) programme in 2005.

The HSKT programme primarily focused on hardware integration (datalink, sensors, etc.) rather than the operator’s control station and demonstrated for the first time that the MUM-T could be beneficial beyond just tactical reconnaissance as it could be used for weapons engagements as well. An improved sensor payload (including auto-tracking capabilities and a laser designator) on the Hunter UAS allowed it to designate a target to be engaged by an attack helicopter (cooperative engagement), increasing the standoff distance and thus the safety of the manned platform.

Based on the lessons learnt in the MUM studies the US Air Force started the ‘Loyal Wingman’ programme in 2005 to develop the MUM-T concept. It was followed by the Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capability (MUSIC) Exercise in 2011. This was largest demonstration of MUM-T interoperability ever attempted and even as it showcased new technologies it was the final proof of the concept that the M-UMT capabilities could be fielded to live aircraft. As the initial M-UMT programmes had focussed on the use of UAS with helicopters it was only obvious that AH-64E Apache thereafter became the first manned platform to have LOI 3 and 4 capability, allowing it to not only view live imagery collected from the UAS sensor, but also take direct control of the sensor and even the UAS aircraft itself if desired.

Parallelly, the US Air Force carried out its own programmes and carried out two demonstrative flights of two F-16 with one of the planes readapted to act as a UCAV. On the other side of the ocean the M-UMT programme is led by a tri-nation consortium including Dassault Aviation, Indra, Eumet, Airbus and their partners.


Recent Developments

In October 2014, an Apache AH-64E, a Textron Shadow RQ-7BV2 Block 3 tactical UAV and a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range UAV successfully worked together to carry out an air-to-ground missile attack at Dugway Proving Ground in the United States.

The 1st-229th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion comprising Ah-64Es is equipped with a Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) that let them ‘talk’ to the Gray Eagles. The Gray Eagle is armed with Hellfire missiles and also carries a sensor ball that can stream live daylight or infrared video to recipients with the right data link and screen, which the TCDL provides. The TCDL operates only on the Ku-band frequency and Army drones other than the Gray Eagle use other frequencies. Though the 1st-229th worked with drones in 60 per cent of its missions in Afghanistan it was mostly by coordinating with operators of small drones by radio rather than receiving their video in the cockpit.

In a test carried out in December 2020, United States Air Force successfully got an F-22, F-35B, and XQ-58A Valkyrie ‘attritable’ drone talking to each other with the Valkyrie using a ‘gateway ONE’ translator system that enabled the aircraft to communicate with each other using their otherwise incompatible datalinks.


M-UMT in India

The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) recently unveiled the Combined Air Teaming System (CATS) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). It is a self-financed programme comprising three types of UAVs for different missions. CATS ‘Warrior’ is being developed to operate as a loyal wingman with existing manned fighter jets like the LCA Tejas and Rafale. CATS ‘Hunter’ is meant for deep strike with the mother ship operating in own territory while CATS ‘Alpha’ will be swarm drones of 4 to 24 units, each capable of carrying 5 kg payload, including bombs. These stealth drones will be solar energised.

The HAL claims that the CATS will be ‘a composite amalgamation of manned and unmanned platforms which work together to penetrate heavily defended enemy airspace.’ Warrior and Hunters are expected to be powered by modified PTE-7 engine currently in use with Lakshya target drones. The drones are being developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment, DRDO for the HAL and the CATS Warrior is likely to be part of the IAF in the next four to five years.


Other Programmes

Boeing’s Loyal Wingman unmanned system is to be designed and developed in Australia and it will be the company’s biggest investment in the unmanned programme outside the United States. While the primary focus is to fulfil Australian needs, the UAV can be customised for other customers’ needs also.

The stealth loyal wingman will be armed with sensors and system for intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and early warning. Though the ‘Airpower Teaming System’ comprises unmanned aircraft operating as a team with conventional fighters, the loyal wingman will also be capable of independent flights.

On 27 September 2019, Russia announced joint flight of its fifth-generation stealth fighter Su-57 with stealth attack UAV Okhotnik that lasted about 30 minutes. According to the Russian ministry of defence, the drone and the Su-57 fighter ‘practised interaction to broaden the fighter’s radar coverage and to provide target acquisition for employing air-launched weapons.’ The Okhotnik is expected to join service in 2025 and will undergo weapons trials in another two years’ time. This is not the only M-UMT programme being pursued by Russia as its Tu-95MS has reportedly ‘practised in-flight guidance’ of a UAV in 2021. The report mentioned that the Tu-95MS ‘had been refitted with special drone guidance equipment.’

The type of drone used during the trials is not known although news reports mentioned that the possibility of teaming with the Okhotnik (Hunter) heavy strike drone was not ruled out.

Nearer home, China’s PLAAF aims to use a twin-seat J-20 for M-UMT with the co-pilot managing the loyal wingman thereby allowing the pilot to focus on its primary tasks. A report in the Global Times noted that ‘the J-20 could conduct coordinated operation with drones by leading them, or commanding a drone swarm in combat.’ But this proposed use of twin-seat manned platforms in a way defeats the purpose of M-UMT as each team will need two pilots. The alternate approach is to use high end technology to better manage the loyal wingman and/ or have AI technology for enhanced autonomy and redundancy.

Talking on the subject, Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Beijing-based Aerospace Knowledge magazine, revealed that though the extra pilot on the twin-seat fighter jet would be utilised in more complicated combat situations, like controlling loyal wingman-style drones, the combat data from the second seat could be gathered, analysed and used to train artificial intelligence, which could eventually replace the second pilot. It is not clear how advanced the PLA Air Force might be with this kind of technology, but as more computer automation and artificial intelligence programmes evolve to speed up the pace of data analysis and transmission, the system could be fielded in the near future.

First revealed in July 2019, the UK’s Project Mosquito and swarming drones is geared to develop a technology demonstrator as part of the wider Lightweight Affordable Novel Combat Aircraft (LANCA) programme that aims at offering additional capability, deploying UAS alongside fighters jets offering increased protection, survivability and information for the manned aircraft, and could even provide an unmanned combat air ‘fleet’ in the future. The Royal Air Force is even looking at a new, revolutionary approach of having a game-changing mix of swarming drones and mixed formations of uncrewed combat aircraft as well as next-generation manned aircraft.

Israel’s Elbit has demonstrated operationalisation of its robotic autonomous systems (RAS) technology that enable UAS swarms to conduct a range of different tasks, including navigation, reconnaissance and forward deployment of assets with minimal oversight from human controllers. Further, using its AI-enhanced navigation and target recognition software the THOR mini-UAS can deploy, operate and return to base autonomously, thus reducing the workload of ‘manned’ elements and allowing them to shift their focus to other tasks. The AI-enhanced UAS formations are now capable of semi-autonomously deploying additional platforms or sensors in the field and consequently ‘growing’ their swarm organically. The enhanced independence of autonomous or semi-autonomous platforms is aimed to gradually render the ‘man-in-the-loop’ obsolete, limit the number of human operators required to conduct MUM-T and reduce logistical burdens, whilst enhancing the formation’s survivability. This will also enable the human crew in the M-UMT formation to focus on more complex tasks such as relaying intelligence or coordinating manoeuvres with the other elements of a manned-unmanned unit.

South Korea plans to develop a squadron of stealth unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and also develop a M0UMT involving three-four unmanned aircraft flying alongside a piloted plane, orchestrating “surveillance, electronic interference tactics, and precise shooting,” simultaneously. While the stealthy drones could be used as “decoys” in contested airspace to force enemy air defences to reveal their positions, the other drones equipped with a data link system could transfer target information and images to a variety of receivers both in the air as well as on the ground in near real-time, providing battlefield commanders with up-to-date situational awareness and also be used to designate targets for surveillance and stand-off strikes. As an added payoff the development and acquisition of the M-UMT is meant to reduce the need for a more expensive fifth-generation manned aircraft.

In November 2022 Turkey carried out the first autonomous taxi and take-off roll test of its Kizilelma Fighter UAV. largely designed on lines of the Chinese J-20 stealth aircraft. It is expected to have a 500 NM combat radius with a five hour endurance at  a 0.6 Mach cruise speed. It will have 1.5 tons of payload capacity with a top speed in excess of Mach 1 and will be able to carry air-to-air missiles as well as air-to-ground PGMs. It is as yet not clear if it will act a Loyal Wingman or be more autonomous in its mission but given the increasingly successes achieved by Turkey’s UAV on the field, it is a UAV to watch out for.

Europe’s Future Combat Air System: The Future Combat Air System is being developed by France, Germany and Spain that includes the Remote Carrier (RC) elements combined with the New Generation Fighter and the networked Combat Cloud to form the Next-Generation Weapon System. The tri-nation team is developing a family of swarming and networked air vehicles with sizes ranging from hundred kilograms for expendable ones, to several tonnes for the more sophisticated and reusable loyal wingman type.

With most advanced nations undertaking programmes to develop and field M-UMT with emphasis on autonomous UAVs, it is expected that with advances in AI technology, unmanned platforms will become increasingly independent and reliable thus drastically reducing both the logistical and cognitive burdens of MUM-T in future operations.

Gambit family of unmanned systems
Gambit family of unmanned systems

Future Trends

One area of concern while the M-UMT concepts were being refined was that if the drones weren’t specifically ‘matched’ in various ways to the manned platforms that they were supposed to be protecting or otherwise supporting then they would actually provide dangerous cues to enemy integrated air defence system (IADS) networks, and this may allow these IADS to be more effective in neutralising the manned-unmanned teams. This has led to the development of what is called the multi-layered ‘distributed team’ of diverse unmanned aircraft working in concert with manned types as it presents a more capable alternative to ‘loyal wingman’ concepts, which involve air combat drones working ‘tethered’ to manned platforms in a relatively rigid fashion.

Also, the increasing cost of the developing and fielding UAVS capable of performing diverse missions was a major concern. One of the methods to circumvent this is to develop affordable mass by disaggregation i.e., by separating out functions and having more single function type aircraft so that greater affordability is achieved. The development of the ‘Gambit’ System by General Atomic Aeronautical Systems follows the same approach and comprises a family of four aircraft with about 70 per cent commonality across core systems thereby reducing its costs and simplifying construction with each of the four platforms meant to carry out its own unique mission: air domain sensing; armed escort; low-observable reconnaissance; and high-quality aggressor training. The programme aims to pair large numbers of collaborative, mission-focused and autonomous unmanned aircraft alongside the human-crewed aircraft.

Taking M-UMT to the next level is General Atomics’ Air-Launched Effect (ALE) called the Eaglet that can fly at a maximum airspeed of 115 knots with an endurance of about eight hours with a payload between 20 and 30 pounds, and a maximum service ceiling of about 15,000 feet. It also has low observable features that contribute to its survivability. Its first flight was done from a Gray Eagle UAS. The Gray Eagle (the mothership of Eaglet) with its Eaglets is expected to act as both communication node and communications and electronic intelligence collector for not only AH-64E Apache Guardian helicopters, but also the Army’s Future Long Range Assault Aircraft and Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft programs. With this, the M-UMT of the future may well have a team of manned and unmanned systems with a sub-team being controlled by the UAS.


What next?

The MUM-T is a promising weapon system that offers advantages of high adaptability, reduced costs, collateral damages while improving lethality and increasing survivability. It provides for a new approach to dominate the battlespace in the increasing complexities of the future air combat. The niggling challenges in terms of hardware and software will be overcome in the times to come. But two issues remain of concern. Firstly, when to start developing and fielding the M-UMT systems.

In a recent interaction with the media, the IAF chief said that the “focus on MUMT will gain traction once we have a well-established network of unmanned systems.” With the capabilities already available with real or potential adversaries, the timelines to develop M-UMT capabilities have already passed for us. There is thus a need to leverage the existing unmanned capabilities presently available to use what is at disposal right now and not wait for a suitable platform to be developed years down the line. There is a need to continue with the development process on the other side, but exploit the experience as well as platforms already available within.

The second issue is equally important, that is to define the role and limits of tasks to be performed by unmanned systems. In September 2020, the Pentagon conducted a simulated dogfight between F-16s and the algorithm won. Despite the victory, there were issues as the system took risks that a human pilot would not and had no awareness of self-preservation. The Lockheed Martin VISTA X-62A, a one-of-a-kind training aircraft, was flown by an artificial intelligence agent for more than 17 hours in December 2022, representing the first time AI engaged on a tactical aircraft. One of the aims of the test was to develop a system that empowers them (AI driven unmanned systems) to make more-informed decisions quickly.

While it is believed that AI’s role in lethality is to support humans to make a decision not replace them, the increasing reliance on autonomous unmanned systems to carry out strike missions will continue to push the envelope, blurring the lines between AI and human control. There is a need to understand the ramifications of granting greater autonomy to the unmanned systems and draw the red lines.



Call us