The Coming “Cloud” Concept for Air Power

Predator C

Predator C. General Atomics photo.


On July 26, U.S. defense firm Northrop Grumman announced it had won a $46-million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to “develop, test and field-demonstrate a net-centric architecture system that enhances warfighters’ awareness of the surrounding battlefield environment.”

The system, Heterogeneous Airborne Reconnaissance Team (HART), is designed to autonomously manage a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft and sensors, and distribute actionable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information on demand to soldiers in the field.

HART is the first step toward what Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticist Missy Cummings has described as the “cloud” concept for drones. The concept can be expanded to also include manned aircraft.

For the first century of air warfare, a single point-to-point sortie by a pair or four-ship of aircraft — to drop a bomb, say, or take pictures of an enemy target — was the most important metric for air power. With the spread of long-endurance unmanned aircraft in the last decade, the “orbit” — a nonstop rotation of aircraft over a specified area — has begun to supplant the sortie. Commanders ask not how many sorties they can generate, rather how many orbits they can establish.

Expanding the orbit concept to include more aircraft over a larger area gives rise to the cloud. The way Cummings explained it, a soldier on the ground or a commander in his headquarters will request a particular “service” — an air strike, a period of surveillance or air-defense or even the delivery of small quantities of supplies. The cloud will shift to render the appropriate aircraft at the appropriate time, while continuing to shed exhausted craft and add new ones in order to maintain its overall size, diversity and resilience.

The cloud will depend on a reliable, highly autonomous, open command-and-control architecture with appropriate handheld interfaces for ground forces — something Northrop’s HART should deliver, according to a company release:

The HART system will enable warfighters to use handheld computers to request full-motion video of area of interests such as suspected enemy positions or hostile territory. HART can either dynamically retrieve the required information from a catalog of geo-registered images or direct aircraft and/or sensors to collect updated target information. HART can manage aircraft in either a fully autonomous mode, where HART fully controls both the aircraft and its payload; a semi-autonomous mode where HART controls the payload but not the aircraft; or a manual mode, where HART merely processes video from an aircraft. Requested information is displayed on a soldier’s handheld device.

U.S. air power is undeniably moving toward a cloud rubric, but some officers have questioned its ability to function in highly-defended airspace against an enemy that can destroy or disrupt communications satellites. A cloud dominated by Unmanned Air Systems could be particularly vulnerable, outgoing U.S. Air Force Europe commander Gen. Roger Brady warned last week. “In contested airspace — a more plausible scenario for future conflicts — today’s UAS would be extremely vulnerable,” Brady said. Data-links between aircraft and ground troops are “easily interrupted,” he added.

For that reason, the military must “harden” its command-and-control links by adding redundancy and encryption, while also designing drones that are more autonomous. The Army and Air Force began improving data-link encryption late last year when they discovered that Iraqi insurgents had been intercepting drone video feeds.

That plus higher performance and stealthy characteristics could render the cloud effective even against well-armed enemies. U.S. industry, the Navy and Air Force are already experimenting with a wide range of fast, high-flying, stealthy UAVs, including the RQ-170, the X-47, the X-45 and the Avenger. The Navy and Air Force both have formal programs to field high-performance drones in the coming decade.

This entry was posted in David Axe, English.

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