03 June 2020
The compositions and technical features of the current US UAV force was heavily shaped by short-term war requirement for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Systems were acquired to fulfill immediate tactical needs, even if not entirely ideal. With both Iraq and Afghanistan fading in the rear-view mirror, the services are beginning to take a fresher look at future UAV requirements.
Of the services, the Air Force has made the deepest financial commitment to the current fleet but is also likely to desire the deepest change. The current Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) fleet was acquired with short-term war-fighting needs in mind. Both Iraq and Afghanistan represented benign air defense environments. Aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper were survivable in these environments, since they did not face any medium altitude SAM threat or any hostile fighter threat. Syria is a slightly different scenario, since the Syrian armed forces still possess some modern air defenses, even though badly disrupted. Russian forces in Syria have deployed modern air defenses at their bases in Syria that could interfere with US RPA operations should the Russians wish to do so. The Russians claim to have shot down several UAVs over Syria, including some that were probably under US control.
The current fleet of RPAs (not considering the unknown "black" fleet) is not survivable in a high-intensity conflict with near-peer SAM and aircraft threats. In past cases where UAVs tried to operate against even a moderate air defense threat such as NATO operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, and during the Russia-Georgia war, UAV losses were severe. Some Air Force leaders have made this point very strongly in recent years. This does not mean that the current RPA fleet is obsolete. It is still mission-capable across a wide range of scenarios. However, scenarios at the higher end of the threat spectrum are no doubt the source of considerable concern to US Air Force planners.
To address the higher threats, the Air Force would undoubtedly desire RPAs with greater survivability than existing types, such as the MQ-9 Reaper. This would include greater attention to stealth and higher speeds. In other words, something closer in configuration and performance to the X-47 J-UCAS, or European UCAV demonstrators, such as Neuron and Taranis.
The Air Force is already working on such RPAs, and probably has been doing so, since the USAF dropped out of the J-UCAS over a decade ago. Some evidence of this is the elusive RQ-170 "Beast of Kandahar". However, additional types may also be under development, and either in procurement or close to procurement. This market will be difficult to track with any accuracy, since the aircraft will incorporate low-observable technology, which almost invariably directs the program into black/classified status. Such classified RPAs may not become evident for a decade, unless exposed due to combat use, or as in the case of the RQ-170, due to an accident.
The biggest single item over the next ten years could be the Air Force follow-on to the cancelled J-UCAS. A quick perusal of the funding history shows a marked drop in USAF RDT&E funding after the J-UCAS was reorganized and put under Navy control, between FY06 and FY07 with USAF RDT&E funding falling from $735.7 million to $314.9 million; drops in projected out-year funding were even more dramatic.
It is preposterous that the USAF suddenly lost interest in UCAS in FY06, and it is far more likely that the program “went black” into a compartmented secret program.
The most likely area of USAF RDT&E investment will be in a fighter-sized UCAS, and the program is likely to remain “black” (and very expensive) for much of our forecast period. The start of procurement of such a system is difficult to predict, since the Air Force faces an upcoming procurement bow-wave with the arrival of the F-35 JSF and B-21 Raider bomber in the forecast period.
The Air Force has several potential UCAS applications, including a fighter-sized SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) aircraft to replace the F-117 Stealth fighter, a strategic bomber, a futuristic hypersonic bomber as envisioned under the joint DARPA Falcon program, and a supersonic (or high subsonic) deep penetration reconnaissance platform.
The USAF has backed away from an unmanned strategic bomber, and the B-21 Raider effort will be a manned platform at least now; an optionally manned configuration is also possible.
During the deliberations over the FY14 budget, heavy cuts were made to the RQ-4 Global Hawk program, which had enjoyed considerable support in Congress. When pressed on the matter in Congressional hearings, DoD officials indicated that the missions of the cancelled Global Hawk Blocks could be performed by the U2 and unidentified "classified platforms". One of these platforms is the existing RQ-170. It is by no means certain how many RQ-170 were built, or if it is still in production. However, it is modest in size, suggesting that a large platform would be needed to carry the types of sensors mounted on the Global Hawk or U-2. So, it is likely that the USAF is either working on such an endurance ISR UAV, or already has one in production.
The Air Force was beginning to examine future requirements under its embryonic MQ-X NGUAS (Next Generation UAS) program. This program has largely disappeared, and it does not seem likely this will reach production within our forecast period. One reason for this may be the existence of the "black" programs mentioned earlier, or the assessment that the current RPA fleet can handle near-term scenarios, short of a worrisome, but unlikely high-intensity conflict.
Looking across the next decade, several emerging markets might reach fruition. In the longer term, the UAS field is likely to bifurcate into UAS, and a new category of optionally-piloted aircraft that falls between UAS and conventional aircraft. A 2013 study done for the US Air Force suggested that "The DoD expects its inventory of aircraft, both conventionally manned as well as unmanned, to grow to 27,000 vehicles by 2035, including 8,000 traditional aircraft, 14,000 UAS of all sizes and types, and new aircraft with UAS technologies for pilot augmentation, or optional pilot replacement. This growth is paced by the introduction of new and more capable unmanned or optionally manned aircraft, accomplishing broader DoD missions. The DoD projects that the percentage of unmanned vehicles will grow from 25% in total today, to 70% of the DoD fleet by 2035, including new, optionally manned or pilot augmented aircraft." “Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Service Demand 2015-2035: Literature Review & Projections of Future Usage: USAF Aerospace Management Systems Division.”
In the longer term (2035), the 2013 Air Force study mentioned earlier sees the RPA, as playing an increasingly central role in USAF aircraft procurement and operations: "The Air Force currently operates about 5,400 aircraft. Less than five percent of this total (<270), represents unmanned aircraft, and none are optionally manned aircraft. The Air Force projects that its fleet could grow to some 5,800 aircraft by 2035, with almost 60% (3,480) optionally manned or unmanned. The Air Force also expects that its large unmanned aircraft fleet will grow to about 750 vehicles, leaving the bulk of the Air Force fleet modernization focused on optionally piloted vehicles, satisfying broad mission needs."