Unmanned Systems – A Defence Perspective
Delivering the best capabilities to front line defence personnel must be the top priority for any capability procurement plan. Traditionally, the selection of appropriate capabilities has been led by front line combat and logistic personnel. This approach is ‘requirements pull.’ However, the increasingly rapid development of technology means that those who serve at the front line may not be aware of new and emerging capabilities. Based on this, it seems prudent that proponents should make unsolicited proposals for new capabilities to the military. This approach is called ‘technology push.’ Neither approach is mutually exclusive. There is room for both.
This article adopts the perspective of the unmanned systems technology sector looking at a range of defence applications. It is therefore not intended to be comprehensive, but focuses on those aspects of operations which are relevant to the selection of unmanned systems options.
Here the term ‘unmanned systems’ means systems which automatically and independently execute tasks specified by human users, either directly or indirectly. In many cases, the systems may have mobile components such as Unmanned Aircraft (UA); Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) or mobile robots; Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs); and Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs). Depending on the sophistication of the system, humans may not only do the initial tasking, but can constantly monitor movement and payload product and be capable of retasking or terminating the system mid-mission. With simpler automatic systems, such as precision-guided munitions, these later human interventions are not possible, but in some cases, automatic self destruction might be pre-programmed if warheads fail to detonate.
Remotely operated systems do not fall into the automation-oriented meaning described above, but they can provide excellent solutions in a variety of hazardous operations, such as counter-mine and dealing with improvised explosive devices. For some purposes, remotely operated systems may be the best option for the foreseeable future. However, they will not be considered here.
This article deliberately does not use the word ‘autonomy.’ It refers to various levels of automatic sophistication, where there is fully predictable behaviour. Perhaps the purest form of unmanned system is the intelligent agent, a software entity without physical form, a set of instructions prosecuting its tasks for its human controller in the information environment.
Military services deal with a very wide range of operations, from traditional conflict between the armed services of warring nations, through guerrilla warfare, insurgency and terrorism, to military aid to the civil power and to the civil community, as in disaster relief. Both the roles and requirements for unmanned systems vary considerably across this wide range of operations.
Traditional operations are typically characterized by the use of uniformed personnel, and a range of standard weapons, equipment and logistics platforms ranging from motorbikes through main battle tanks and a wide range of aircraft to capital ships. Many traditional operations take place in the open skies, on or under wide oceans, and in rural terrain. In these conditions, depending on the weather, it is relatively easy to detect, classify, recognize and even identify military entities.
In urban operations, the clutter of built-up areas, the presence of civilians and civilian vehicles and a congested electromagnetic spectrum greatly increase the difficulty of detection and recognition tasks. But in both urban and rural operations, the priority is to deal with uniformed personnel and readily identifiable and often standard military equipment. Both of these environments provide excellent opportunities for the employment of unmanned systems, which can be programmed to detect and recognize enemy personnel and equipment for a range of purposes. Unmanned systems can also be used to map and characterize terrain and obstacles.
One class of unmanned system, precision guided munitions, is already widely deployed. There are many implementations, from cruise missiles and torpedoes, through air-to-air guided missiles, to terminally homing cluster bomblets. The essence of such systems is to identify an appropriate enemy target, lock onto it and destroy it. Their efficiency is greatly enhanced by having a good signature information of each enemy equipment type in the band of the relevant weapon sensor – in other words, non-cooperative target recognition.
As sensor, computing and power technologies advance, the ability of unmanned systems to be highly selective in their selection of appropriate targets will increase, thereby improving their operational efficiency while reducing collateral damage.
A second class of one-way unmanned systems is the sacrificial robot. One example is found in preparation for a beach landing where mines have to be cleared from the shallow water and the beach. Here a swarm of crawling robots is launched from offshore. They sink to the bottom and make their way through the shallow water and up onto the beach. As they go along they look for mines. If a crawler finds a mine and positively identifies it, it stops and nestles in close beside it. After a suitable period, all mines would have a crawler beside it. Then, at the correct operational moment, all the crawlers would detonate, thereby clearing all the mines that could be found. While this task is easy to describe, a high degree of technological sophistication is required to make this solution efficient.
While there are multiple applications for precision guided munitions and other sacrificial unmanned systems, most people think in terms of unmanned aircraft, fighting vehicles, vessels and boats.
Army commanders want to know what is immediately beyond the line of sight and what targets are within range of indirect fire weapons. They know that, in the heat of battle, it can be difficult to task assets outside their own control. As a result, there has been a strong proliferation of what are called tactical unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which are typically controlled at brigade level and below. In some nations, platoons might carry their own small unmanned systems.
Army UAS tend to focus on reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and battle damage assessment. Small, stealthy and relatively slow flying UA are required for these tasks, and operations typically involve the use of simple communications based on radio line of sight. Analysis of the sensor, a product of such systems (typically optical or infrared imaging), is often difficult due to ground clutter. The use of tactical unmanned aircraft and systems enhancements are likely to continue to increase.
Armies are keen to use robotic tanks and logistic systems for dangerous or dull tasks. The challenges of ground clutter and safe terrain navigation mean that few solutions have been fielded, but R&D continues in these areas. Convoys with manned lead vehicles and ‘slave’ robotic followers are close to a reality. There are many opportunities to increase robotic automation of logistic operations for all the military services. The remotely operated systems for dealing with explosive devices are likely to become more automatic in the near future.
Navies also have a wide range of tasks for UAS. Fixed wing systems offer long endurance and the ability to reconnoitre large areas of ocean beyond visual range from a ship. The challenges of launch and recovery from a floating vessel have been resolved in several ways. Open ocean is a much less cluttered environment than land, easing the sensor analysis task. Rotary wing UA, while perhaps not having the range and endurance of fixed wing systems, can make a valuable contribution to anti-submarine warfare, radio relay, and point-to-point logistics operations at sea. There are multiple applications for low visibility USVs, especially convoy protection and harbour/coastal patrols. There are many advanced AUVs, primarily used for counter-mine operations, but also with applications in antisubmarine warfare, hull inspection, infrastructure protection, ocean floor survey, salvage, submarine rescue and countering smuggling.
Air forces have begun to understand the opportunities offered by UAS. There is interest in many operational and strategic tasks, such as long-range synthetic aperture radar and moving target indicator systems and communications and electronic intelligence. Other systems are being used not only for surveillance and intelligence support of land operations but also for precision ground attack and damage assessment. There are some interesting cultural aspects to the use of UA in this way. Operations taking place on one side of the world can be controlled by UA pilots thousands of miles away using satellite communications. These pilots get up in the morning at home, go to work, fly a full day war-fighting in the battlespace, maybe using their weapons systems to destroy enemy targets, and then end their shift and return to their homes and families. This is a new and challenging way to wage war. It is one of many examples where the use of unmanned systems technologies represents not only an enhancement to military capability but also a challenge to culture, organization, training and procedures.
The biggest change for the air forces will be the advent of the unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS). While there will probably be a role for manned combat aircraft for certain classes of mission, the removal of the human form from the aircraft reduces the volume, weight and power requirements while enabling much higher G-forces than humans can withstand. In a few years, it is unlikely that any manned aircraft would be able to win a dogfight with an unmanned adversary. Air to air refuelling of unmanned aircraft is already technically practical, and UCA are easier to make stealthier.
From the unmanned systems perspective, the challenges in dealing with guerilla warfare, insurgency, terrorism and the provision of military aid to the civilian power or the community are broadly similar and stem from the difficulty in identifying the appropriate entities. The guerilla fighter or insurgent seeks protection through disguise as an innocent civilian. So the emphasis in the employment of unmanned systems shifts away from automatic, target-oriented mission execution, and moves towards covert operations, exploitation of network capabilities, the use of small, stealthy systems, pattern recognition and the use of multiple sensors, such as those for chemical sniffing. The trend will be towards increased use of multi-sensor systems, facial recognition and other biometric techniques. In this area of asymmetric operations, there is significant convergence between the requirements of the regular armed service with those of civil national security agencies, para-military forces and certain first-responders.
Automated logistic operations and the use of unmanned systems to deliver critical supplies in hazardous conditions are of particular relevance to disaster relief operations. The use of unmanned aircraft in the surveillance role can provide valuable information on collapsed bridges, impassable roads and other changes to the environment and the infrastructure as a result of a disaster. Small UGVs have already been used extensively to seek out trapped humans in collapsed buildings and mine shafts.
The removal of the human form not only means smaller and lighter and more efficient vehicles, but it opens up new possibilities in terms of capability. It is not just a matter of unmanned systems doing existing dull, dirty and dangerous tasks better than manned systems; it is a question of what new capabilities can be designed and how can things be done differently.
Unmanned systems can and should be designed to become part of the overall military systems of systems. They should be designed to have high degrees of interoperability with data, computing and communications infrastructures. Certain systems may also be required to interoperate with civilian government and other non-military systems, especially in asymmetric operations as mentioned above.
Software and subsystem design should be as modular as possible, in order to enhance operational flexibility, component re-use, interoperability and standardization. Unmanned systems software connected with safety critical applications, such as navigation and weaponry, should be so designed as to be certifiable by the relevant authorities. The expense of such certification emphasizes the need to re-use certified software components wherever possible.
All military systems have to be designed to be easily used in a hurry and in difficult conditions by service personnel and have to be robust to deliver their capabilities in the full range of operational environments. Unmanned systems have to meet these conditions just as any other military equipment.
At one level, unmanned systems typically present the same human Interface issues to the military user as the employment of sophisticated ICT systems in the battlespace, such as display representation, ergonomics, orientation, environmental protection, security and hardening.
Unmanned systems also bring additional considerations such as the remote waging of war, mentioned above, and a host of health, safety and workplace regulation issues.
Perhaps one of the most significant challenges in the use of highly automated systems, including unmanned systems, for military operations is the need for the human users to understand fully both the capabilities and the shortcomings of the exceptionally complex systems they are employing. As system complexity increases, so military uses have to be both more intellectually capable and better educated and trained. Failure to keep the right balance between human understanding and control of complex unmanned systems and automatic execution could lead to serious consequences. There is probably already in need to revisit the existing provisions in international law, the law of conflict, and agreements such as the Geneva Convention.
Dewar Donnithorne-Tait’s 20-plus years of service with the British Government included operations, intelligence, defence technology, defence procurement, security, international relations, NATO, and R&D management (particularly focused on defence systems). His involvement with unmanned systems began at the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham, where he studied UGV sensors. Since then, he has worked on a range of UGV and UAS research, development and acquisition projects. Trained to operate and fly a light unmanned aircraft and with UK CAA operational approval, his family company, Veitch Moir Ltd, is flying light UAS commercially. He is currently President & CEO of the Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (www.ccuvs.com).
© FrontLine Defence 2009