Collaborative Combat

Manned aircraft and UAVs can team up for better results during missions

Girish LingannaGirish Linganna

MUM-T (Manned-Unmanned Teaming) is redefining mission autonomy. Combining human and unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) improves mission efficacy by increasing situational awareness and decision-making capability.

Incorporating unmanned autonomous systems into mission planning broadens mission boundaries and tactical scope while reducing the danger to human and technology assets in unpredictable or hostile circumstances. MUM-T ensures machine learning accuracy, operational flexibility and continuity by combining human intelligence with artificial intelligence (AI) in planning and decision-making processes.

Since too much planning, equipment and survival systems are required to safeguard human crews, air power theorists have generally concluded that the era of human-crewed aircraft has ended. At the turn of the century, it was believed that the current fifth generation of manned fighters, including India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), would be succeeded by unmanned drones remotely guided to their targets, where their weapon loads would be released automatically.

The essential technology that makes MUM-T a reliable and effective force is AI-based autonomous systems.


Swarm-Enabled Tactics

The American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been pioneering the future of small-unit infantry forces using over 250 UAVs and unmanned ground systems (UGSs) in a swarm. This MUM-T will accomplish diverse missions in complex urban environments. By combining emerging technologies in swarming autonomy and human-swarm teaming, OFFSET (OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics) will enable rapid development and deployment of breakthrough capabilities.

The ambitious project has a wide ambit under which various research teams have been competing. The project’s larger vision wants not to build a sophisticated arm mounted on a robot. Instead, the ability to aid surveillance in the urban setting is the priority. Understanding that different forces have different approaches to tactics, a primary focus is designing a tactics-focused game wherein swarm optics are relied on to explore rapidly, evolve and evaluate swarm tactics. Further, these tactics can be shared across forces as best practices.

HAL’s CATS Warrior

One of the industry leaders participating in the OFFSET programme, Northrop, recently demonstrated a swarm of 174 platforms that a single user controlled. This impressive feat underscores the maturity of the platforms to accomplish basic tasks and execute tactics with precision. Northrop’s swarm combined aerial and ground behaviours like reconnaissance and patrolling for three and a half hours. This readiness can be taken to an active battlefield soon and will add to the firepower that a small-unit infantry brings. In urban counter insurgency operations, the swarm will demonstrate the ability to flush out hidden targets and build a picture for the operators, highlighting infil and exfil routes for the space.

According to a release, DARPA has marked particular objectives for their OFFSET swarms. They plan to be able to seize 50,000 square metres of urban terrain in about five hours. The swarm must take no more than 30 minutes to isolate an objective in 12,500 square metres of the city block. And a raid in an urban setting over double the area should take about one to four hours. University at Buffalo, US, has proposed an elaborate 80-drone launch, recovery, charging and transport unit that can be towed by the infantry vehicle or the command centre.


Project Carrera

A couple of days back, the US arms giant Lockheed Martin announced its intention to invest USD 100 million in distributed teaming technologies to deliver those capabilities today and upgrade them with near-, mid-, and long-term enhancements.

Lockheed Martin’s strategy combines crewed platforms such as the F-35 with inexpensive, modular uncrewed assets, such as Speed Racer. Unveiled in March 2021, Lockheed Martin’s new Speed Racer drone is designed to perform a range of combat missions. The new Speed Racer drone unveiled by Lockheed Martin on March 2021 is intended to execute various military tasks.

The unmanned air vehicle has a relatively flat, sleek and chine-shaped cross-section with a pointed nose and a rear-mounted engine compartment, giving it the appearance of a hybrid aircraft and cruise missile. Over the dorsal line are hardpoint connections that allow the vehicle to be transported beneath the wing of a host ship for air launch. When the UAV is readied for flight, the mainplanes are spring-loaded and kept low and against the sides of the fuselage; they then spring open. The tailplane layout has a three-plane structure, with two dorsally positioned, outwardly-cranked planes and one ventral plane.

The aircraft will use a dual jet engine configuration using Kratos Turbine Technologies turbojets (KTT). Before launch, the exhaust port stays covered and is discharged before the ignition. Alongside this motion is the forward movement of the mainplanes, which, when completely extended, remain in a swept-back configuration for aerodynamic efficiency. The payload capacity of the air vehicle is being developed to carry either ISR (Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance) equipment or an explosive warhead—potentially indicating a dual-role capability for an upcoming the United States Air Force aerial weapon.


India’s CATS Programme

At the Aero India 2021 air show in February last year, one of the most interesting exhibits was a full-scale model at the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) pavilion that portrayed the Indian Air Force (IAF) might conduct future battles.

This was called the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS), a mix of human and unmanned systems that would work together, enhancing each other’s strengths and capabilities during combat.

The CATS concept of operations includes manned aircraft operating as airborne controllers of deadly, unmanned killer vehicles that swarm into enemy airspace in large numbers and overwhelm hostile defences.

CATS-MAX is the manned mothership at the core of the system. This is premised on a manned two-seat fighter, such as the Tejas LCA, flying as high as 45,000 feet while keeping safely inside the Indian airspace. From the CATS-MAX, a controller directs operations through a data network with the rest of the system’s components. CATS-MAX would control assets like the CATS Warrior loyal wingman, CATS Hunter (a terrain-hugging, turbojet-powered missiles with ranges of about 300 km that are carried on the mothership’s wings, CATS Alpha) Air Launched Flexible Assets or Swarm Drones and a Pseudo-Satellite CATS Infinity.

CATS Warrior is similar to the Lockheed Martin Speed Racer. CATS Warrior will be powered by an enhanced version of the HAL PTAE-7 twin turbojet engine arrangement that was once employed in the DRDO’s target drone Lakshya. Like the loyal wingman drone, it is an unmanned stealth platform that can be controlled from up to 150 kms away by the mothership in forming 2-4 warrior drones. It can fly alongside the mothership to perform tasks such as scouting, absorbing enemy fire, and, if necessary, attacking the targets with its internal weapons. With a maximum range of 700 kms for self-destruct suicide missions, the CATS Warrior can carry a payload of 24 ALFA-S loitering bombs (carriers) up to 350 kilometres before returning safely to base. In addition to swarm drones, it can carry four DRDO Smart Ant-Airfield Weapons (SAAW) on the wingtips and two in the interior storage. HAL will invest Rs 390 crore (USD 53.5 million) towards developing the CATS Warrior platform. The integration with CATS MAX will take one to two years and the first scheduled flights are for 2024-2025.

The future airspace will not just be technically different but also tactically different. With hordes of manned and unmanned flights working in tandem, strategists can dwell on acing an asymmetric engagement.


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