Air Force leaders outlined what the next 20 years will look like for remotely piloted aircraft in the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan published April 30.
“The Small UAS Flight Plan outlines a vision and strategy for the continued development, operation and sustainment of SUAS over the next 20 years,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Integrating SUAS into the Air Force’s ISR portfolio enables a more agile force that will help meet future warfighter demands in both permissive and highly contested environments.”
The flight plan presents an aggressive but realistic vision on how the Air Force must take significant steps, not only in system acquisition, but also in adaptive warfighting concepts, to integrate and institutionalize an Airmen-centric family of SUAS as exponential force multipliers across all domains. The SUAS concept supports the Defense Department and Air Force’s Better Buying initiatives: reversing the cost curve by looking at lower-cost alternatives, enabling operational agility against a diverse set of adversaries and operational environments.
“RPAs have been foundational to the growth of the Air Force’s globally integrated ISR enterprise, but as operating environments become more complex, budgets plateau, and technology proliferation neutralizes our asymmetric advantage, we must address future demands with a new way of thinking,” said Col. Brandon Baker, the director of RPA capabilities. “SUAS offer a way to provide more capability and capacity to the warfighter at equal or lower operational cost.”
The plan also gives industry partners an outlook on the capabilities the Air Force wants to have in the future, ranging from new SUAS platforms to advancements in collaborative networks, resilient and secure communications, and higher levels of autonomy. Teaming with industry will enable the rapid advancement of equivalent RPA capabilities in a compact, cost benefiting and operationally successful family of SUAS focused on Air Force roles and mission.
“There is so much more that can be done with SUAS,” Baker said. “SUAS will enable new operational concepts like teaming, swarming and loyal wingman, which allow for a single operator to control large numbers of platforms.”
Additionally, with infinitely new sensors and payloads available across the globe, the incorporation of automation and novel analytical approaches will be required to efficiently and effectively manage the Air Force’s processing, exploitation and dissemination to alleviate potentially overwhelming manpower requirements.
Looking beyond the next decade, SUAS and RPA capabilities will have the potential to meet many surveillance and C4ISR roles for the Air Force. The future of the Air Force’s RPA programs will continuously evolve to allow the Air Force to remain the leader in air, space and cyberspace.