No military in the world has made greater use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) than the United States. UASs now come in many sizes and configurations. There are the tiny, hand-launched tactical UASs beloved by Special Forces and produced by Aerovironment such as the Puma, Raven and Wasp.
Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, employed the Scan Eagle very successfully in Iraq and is now building the Blackjack, which can be on land or aboard surface ships. The vertical takeoff and landing Fire Scouts (MQ-8B/C) built by Northrop Grumman, provide a wide range of tactical ISR and strike options for naval craft and operate in conjunction with manned helicopters. There is General Atomics’ ubiquitous family of long-endurance, medium altitude Air Force operated Predators and Reapers (MQ-1/9) and the Army’s variant, the Grey Eagle. The Textron Shadow provides the Army and Marine Corps with a medium altitude and endurance ISR platform for brigade and division levels.
Finally, there is the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, a high altitude, long endurance UAS operated by the Air Force. A Global Hawk variant, the Triton, is being deployed by the Navy for the broad area maritime surveillance mission.
It might seem that the U.S. military had filled all the possible demands for UASs. But this would not be the case. One significant weakness in the UAS space is for an ultra-endurance medium altitude UAS. The mid-altitude regime is the one most heavily utilized by all the services. It is best suited to exploitation of available sensors, most notably full motion video cameras, to support ISR and targeting missions. It is the operating regime of choice for supporting counter-terrorist missions. The demands for UAS flights in the medium altitude band continues to grow as the U.S. seeks to counter the rapid spread of ISIS and affiliated groups in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, the Sinai and Nigeria.
The current Pentagon requirement is for 65 Predator/Reaper orbits, which the Air Force is finding extremely difficult to meet from the perspective of airframes, personnel and operational and maintenance costs. The commander of Air Combat Command (ACC), General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, recently wrote a memo to the Air Force Chief of Staff in which he warned that “ACC believes we are about to see a perfect storm of increased COCOM [Combatant Commander] demand, accession reductions, and outflow increases that will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 enterprise for years to come. . . I am extremely concerned.”
It is time to consider filling the open space in the UAS hierarchy with an ultra-long endurance, medium altitude UAS. Ultra-long endurance is becoming increasingly important for several reasons. It will address the growing gap in ISR capabilities to meet COCOM demands. Providing high quality, medium altitude ISR in a region as vast as the Western Pacific would be beyond the capability of any proposed fleet of presently deployed UASs.
The increase in contingencies in parts of the world with few properly equipped bases demands long range and greater endurance. This same long range and endurance allows for greater flexibility in the reallocation of UAS ISR assets as circumstances dictate. In essence, global coverage can be achieved without the requirement for large numbers of forward deployments. This would also result in reduced infrastructure, manpower and logistics costs.
The Air Force has a platform that will fill the requirement for a long-range, high endurance UAS. The Orion, developed under contract to the Air Force by Aurora Flight Sciences, holds the endurance record for an operationally capable UAS at 80 hours with a 1,700-pound payload. The vehicle landed with sufficient residual fuel to have supported an additional 37 hours of flight. The operational Orion is expected to have a 120-hour mission profile with a 1,000 pound payload. Operating from bases in Italy or Djibouti, the Orion could cover virtually all of Africa with significant dwell time over the target area.
The Orion would not replace the Predator/Reaper. The latter’s advantage of speed and altitude is desirable for a number of missions. Rather, the Air Force needs to consider investing in a mixed fleet with each platform employed in a manner that makes best use of its unique advantages. Orion would provide a definite cost advantage for long-range missions where time to target was not critical.
The Orion is not Aurora Flight Science’s only breakthrough invention. Last week, the company was awarded a competitive contract by DARPA to build a vertical takeoff and landing airplane. Aurora’s LightningStrike uses 24 small ducted fans in its wing and two canards to take off and land vertically. Once airborne, the LightningStrike, like the V-22 Osprey, will tilt its wing and canard forward to fly faster like an airplane. The fans will each have individual electric motors which will be driven by three electric generators that are themselves powered by a single Rolls-Royce AE 1107 turbine engine. Aurora Flight Sciences is a remarkable source of aviation innovation.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the concluding sentence above suggests that the Lexington Institute has signed up Aurora as a new customer, the need for an ultra-long endurance UAV has also been expressed in other countries, although most see the need to be for communications relays or observation rather than for combat.)