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The Future is Now: A Path Forward in Manned-Unmanned Teaming

The future of Australian Army Aviation lies in its ability to successfully integrate manned and unmanned aerial vehicles in the tactical and operational spheres—that future can be realised now. The inevitability of manned and unmanned teaming (MUM–T) extends beyond the forecasting of the 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2016 Integrated Investment Program. The language of both documents is thick with descriptions of the increased utility and ubiquity of unmanned aerial systems and points to their future as part of Army’s armed aerial reconnaissance capability. They signal an incorporation from the mid-2020’s of a MUM–T organisation. But why wait until 2025 to begin realising the fruits of a MUM–T capable organisation? The Australian Army already possesses the correct ingredients for such an organisation. With one eye on the future the practical, tactical and intellectual hurdles can be overcome now.

The basis of a combined arms team is their ability to provide complementary characteristics to a task orientated unit, so that the limitations of one system may be bolstered by that of another. An aerial combined arms team is no different. By pairing manned and unmanned aircraft the opportunities increase significantly. So what are the strengths and limitations of manned and unmanned aerial systems? The Tiger helicopter and RQ-7B Shadow offer us the most appropriate examples to explore.

 

 

The Present

The US Army has already forged ahead with permanent integration of manned and unmanned aircraft in its Aviation Brigades. While it can be tempting to see a future without manned tactical aircraft, it will not be in this generation. The current proposals for the US Future Vertical Lift programme retain the human pilot and include a MUM-T philosophy from the embryonic stages of development. The ethical and political constraints on providing weaponised vehicles the autonomy they would require to survive in contested airspace prevent an exclusively unmanned future. Only manned aircraft currently possess the systems, flexibility and autonomy to succeed in anything other than benign airspace.

The Australian Army has already started down the path of interoperability between its unmanned RQ-7B fleet and the ARH Tiger. The benefits of which were realised in 2017 when a Shadow UAS successfully designated a target for a Hellfire missile fired from an ARH Tiger (video available here). The combination was not a unique one and drew on existing US doctrine designed for just such a pairing. This aerial combined arms team provides an unarmed UAS an option to employ kinetic effects; while symbiotically increasing the range and target sources to which ARH crews can employ their most lethal weapon. 

So with this milestone garnering the pool room wall, what is the next step on the path towards a true MUM-T capability? 

The Future is Now

The Australian Army already possesses the ingredients for a successful aerial combined arms team. What is required is the impetus to task organise these disparate capabilities so that their combined effects may be realised— an aviation task group featuring Chinook, MRH-90, Tiger and Shadow on Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 should be the next step.

The current aviation commitments to the Hamel/Talisman Sabre exercises consists of an aviation Task Group drawn from 16 AVN BDE, providing lift and attack aviation support to either 1 DIV or a manoeuvre Brigade. 20 STA typically provides an element of RQ-7B operating under a parallel C2 structure. Both 16 AVN BDE and 20 STA assets are simultaneously present on the simulated battle field of the Hamel/TS series, but due to parallel command structures their effects are rarely combined at the tactical level, the outcome is to invariably separate the assets, so as to not interfere with each other’s specific tasks. 

By combining 16 AVN BDE and 20 STA assets under a combined Task Group headquarters, a true manned, unmanned team could be fostered. The current philosophy of separation would be forced into one of integration, where the Task Group commander would be charged with maximising the efficient employment of the assets at their disposal. Such a task organised unit would realise multiple benefits.

The developments made by 1 AVN and 20 STA to integrate the Shadow and Tiger have been successful, but that success is ethereal. While it has been codified in doctrine, that doctrine is nigh on useless unless taught in schools and then employed on exercise. The concept of forces discovering and employing useful doctrine in conflict, which hasn’t been taught during peace, is not supported by historical experience. For the existing integration between 1 AVN and 20 STA to outlast the next posting cycle, the next stage of combined training must be implemented.

Increased Airspace Integration

As has been alluded to already, commanders and airspace controllers have preferred to separate manned and unmanned aircraft in the airspace, often by significant margins. The rationale for this is to maximise safety, but do we really know where the safe boundary is for integrating manned and unmanned aircraft? The current safety parameters create aircraft exclusion zones for the operation of the Black Hornet UAV, a device so small that the only negative outcome of a collision between it and a manned aircraft would be the extra administration of its owner filling out a ‘Lost and Damaged’ report. Manned aircraft are prepared and trained to see and avoid birds; rarely do they collide, and the consequences are not catastrophic. A similar mental approach could be applied to tactical UAVs, but with the added advantage of their locations and operating parameters already being known by manned aircraft.  Humans are notoriously bad at estimating risk, and the likelihood of specific events occurring. Collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft are heralded as the next ‘big challenge’ to aviation safety, but the promotion of individual near-miss events is likely to disproportionally distort the perceived risks of future occurrences; it’s a similar effect to disproportionate attention attached to shark attacks in Australia. The risks should be objectively assed against data. Only by increasing the current levels of integration can we amass enough information to accurately ascertain risk levels. The procedures required for RQ-7B and manned aircraft cooperating from a single airfield is a surmountable challenge which is yet to be tried.

Logistic and C3 Efficiencies

The combined operation of manned and unmanned aircraft from a single airfield, under a unified command, would provide some logistical and C3 efficiencies. The tasking of aviation assets would be streamlined, the aviation battlegroup commander is the most appropriate position to determine the appropriation of assets to tasks. Non-platform specific aircraft maintenance facilities could also be shared between manned and unmanned RAEME sections. 

This proposal would also increase the applicability of the 3 year force generation cycle as it is currently applied across FORCOMD. The 3 year Readying, Ready, Rest cycle is optimised for the Army’s combat brigades, as it should be. But this model is often difficult to apply to enabling units, particularly those from 16 AVN BDE and 6 BDE. Due to the ubiquity of demand for their involvement in exercises, the responsibility for force generating a capability is often rotated between only 2 elements, resulting in a less effective ‘Readying, Ready, Readying’ cycle. By the inclusion of 20 STA into a unified aviation battlegroup, the responsibility for headquarters generation would be shared between 20 STA, 5 AVN and 1 AVN, allowing for a better fit to the force generation model.

(Author’s Note: This is not a proposal for the incorporation of 20 STA into the 16 AVN BDE ORBAT. As all Army aviation units already operate under a common regulatory framework, such a step is unnecessary)

Conclusion

Army’s manned and unmanned aviation units have begun walking a path towards a credible Manned, Unmanned Team. But these developments will be but shadows in doctrine unless regular training opportunities occur. The benefits are real, the capabilities exist; all that remains is for MUM-T to be tested in the field. 

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About the Author:

James Kingham is an Australian Army Officer currently serving as a Troop Commander at the 1st Aviation Regiment.