Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Significant Step for Unmanned Aviation

This is another gem of an article from Defense Daily (subscription only). Reporting from Empire Challenge 09 (EC09) exercise, the article discusses software developed by Northrop Grumman that allows a modified E-2 to communicate with unmanned systems, as the system to system level, for actionable control and command sequencing.

Think through what this means in terms of evolutions in unmanned aviation towards its logical conclusions...

"The ability to collect and share real-time ISR at the theater and the tactical level quickly and accurately is crucial to ensuring battle commanders have the enhanced situational awareness required for successful mission completion," Tom Vice, vice president of Battle Management and Engagement Systems division for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems sector said. "During Empire Challenge, we successfully demonstrated how manned command and control aircraft can direct and manage unmanned aircraft to enhance image collection and target identification. We will take what we've learned through this collaborative exercise to continue to mature our ISR capabilities to ensure our warfighters have the mission critical information they need when they need it."

One key element to the success of this interoperability was an E-2 Hawkeye developmental test bed. The test bed is based on the robust capability of the U.S. Navy's E-2 Hawkeye mission computing system which enabled it to successfully operate the Electrical Optical (EO) sensor onboard both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in response to requests from ground commanders. Using machine-to-machine command interfaces, the E-2 test bed was able to cue each UAV simulator to provide imagery of both static and dynamic ground tracks for target identification. The image request messages were transmitted via machine-to-machine interfaces, replacing the need for voice and manual chat resulting in an increased response time, Northrop Grumman said.
This really is interesting technology with incredible potential when you think about it, because not only is it increasing the efficiency of the unmanned constellations in the airspace in areas where access is assured, but the system to system architecture contributes significant infrastructure for evolution towards robust capabilities necessary to operate unmanned systems in airspace where active denial is taking place.
The virtual Joint STARS integrated the Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) architecture providing constellation management along with UAV control and multi-level security capability sets which enabled the platform to demonstrate an expansion of its current ISR role to include automated UAV image collection and development of target quality solutions to support strike engagements, the company added.

Sensor imagery received from the UAVs via Joint STARS was provided to an image analyst who examined each image and determined which should be included in the image product library (IPL). Images in the IPL were used to populate the Global Command and Control System (GCCS). Once threats were identified, the E-2 test bed managed airborne attack assets, including F-18s and EA-6Bs, to conduct precision strike missions against those threats, based on Joint STARS ground tracks and correlated imagery supporting threat identification. The net effect of this ISR sensor tasking and command and control network was a reduction in both the 'kill-chain,' the time it takes to find, identify, and engage a target, and the operator workload required to accomplish the task, according to Northrop Grumman.
Empire Challenge 09 included unmanned systems like the RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-8B Fire Scout, and the MQ-5B Hunter. In the article, Northrop Grumman attempts to buzzword the solution for irregular warfare, but once we get to the point of reliable interaction between manned aviation systems and unmanned aviation systems, it is only a few short steps before we see integrated manned and unmanned platforms as strike packages for high intensity conflict.

In theory, a future naval strike package might include a EA-18, 4 F-35Cs, and an E-2D supported by USAF JSTARS controlling multiple assets including Global Hawks, Reapers, and a squadron of UCAS. In such a package against a peer competitor, under conditions where satellite communications may be jammed or otherwise unavailable, the JSTARS and E-2D rapidly pull data from the recon assets and distribute targeting commands to UCAS assets, under the air protection of the JSFs and supported by the Growler. You can pull up any number of fictional strike packages as an example, but the point is the opportunity to exploit the peer-to-peer network nature of operating at the tactical level within a confined sky battlespace extends operational options, and greatly increases the potential to utilize unmanned aircraft even when active denial of communication networks exists. In theory, leveraging this software and existing LOS network technology, this positions the Navy towards ForceNET at altitude with unmanned technology, and even if the sky is an electron soup commands could be issued efficiently to an unmanned aviation vehicle.

This is a step from the irregular warfare space that currently dominates UAV thinking, a battle space where active denial of communications and airspace doesn't exist; towards the use of unmanned aviation assets in high intensity conflict scenarios where active denial does exist. We may not be there yet, but I see this technology by Northrop as a huge step forward for unmanned aviation.

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