August 1, 2010  

Robot revolution

Revealing the Army’s UAS road map

When combat operations began in October 2001, the Army had 54 operational unmanned aircraft. Today, the Army has more than 4,000 unmanned aircraft in various sizes and capabilities, with many more programmed or in development.

After nearly nine years of continuous combat operations, the Army has learned valuable lessons about employing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and what is required from unmanned systems to best support land forces. UAS provide the war-fighting commander with the ability to lessen the effects of collateral damage by picking the right tool to execute operations.

These tools begin with a soldier or Marine and move up through the plethora of kinetic and nonkinetic options — making tactical UAS indispensable in the urban fight. As American policy evolves in how wars are fought, UAS will continue to provide commanders the ability to protect their troops and innocents, while effectively executing operations. The U.S. Army UAS Roadmap, 2010-2035, is a collective vision statement for how the Army will improve upon existing UAS and expand upon those capabilities in the future.

In keeping with the Army’s overarching strategy of UAS providing dedicated and organic support to our tactical echelons, this first road map was drafted from the bottom up. Subject-matter experts from all Army war-fighting functional areas provided insight into battlefield capability gaps and shortfalls, while our science and technology community, as well as the acquisition commands, provided glimpses of potential future technological innovations. As such, the road map is not a budgetary or programmatic directive, but a synchronized vision within the Army on an appropriate path to grow UAS. Its use in the global war on terrorism and for overseas contingency operations continues to keep it a game changer.

Arguably, UAS are another revolution in military affairs as they provide situational awareness and information-sharing not possible in previous wars. The use of helicopters in Korea and Vietnam allowed us to appreciate the advantages of air medical evacuation and air mobility — which eventually spawned the AirLand Battle Doctrine. Likewise, UAS will expand its roles to support the Army’s Capstone Concept. The Army must continue to operate effectively under conditions of uncertainty and complexity. In an era of persistent conflict, our leaders must understand the tactical situation in depth, adapt the actions of their formations to seize and retain the initiative and be capable of rapid operations over extended distances, while sustaining operations over time and across ever wider areas with fewer forces.

The Army UAS road map has eight themes:

å Soldiers are the backbone of the Army’s UAS strategy.

å The Army synchronizes the human, networking and equipment elements.

å The Army uses commonality and an open-architecture-systems approach as the two fundamental foundations.

å UAS provide dynamically retaskable assets to ground commanders.

å UAS provide actionable intelligence to the lowest tactical level.

å UAS shorten the sensor-to-shooter or action timeline.

å UAS support full-spectrum operations.

å UAS allow commanders to employ a variety of capabilities.

From an Army tactical perspective, ground forces require dedicated UAS just as they require fire support or engineers. Experiences in overseas contingency operations demonstrate the risk to tactical units is related to the size of that unit, with complex terrain and the inherent uncertainties in stability and support missions compounding that risk. Decision-making at the small-unit level is measured in seconds or minutes, and there simply is not enough time for the small-unit leader to request a joint-service asset.

The risk-versus-time principle is synonymous with the tenets of information warfare in that it places a premium on gaining information dominance over the situation to enable an action (maneuver, etc.) by smaller, more agile, tailored forces to positions of advantage. Put in another way, it allows the commander to shorten the sensor-to-action timeline.

The UAS provides real-time information about the terrain and its occupants and provides the situational understanding that helps lift the fog of war, or the lack of situational awareness, described by 18th-century Prussian military theorist Gen. Carl von Clausewitz.

The need for dedicated UAS support exists among all services and within the various echelons of the Navy, Marines and Air Force. The Army UAS road map documents an increasing mission portfolio for UAS that expands beyond intelligence-gathering into the attack, utility, cargo and command-and-control functions. Interdependencies exist to ensure UAS coverage can be optimized across formations and echelons, and/or massed as required, to meet commanders’ objectives at all levels.

This first UAS road map is admittedly more of an inward assessment of Army UAS needs rather than a document that describes how they fit into a joint fight. The Army is working closely with other services and with the defense secretary’s UAS Task Force to develop the third revision of the Defense Department’s Unmanned Systems Roadmap.

The Army road map is broken into three time periods: near-term, 2010-2015; midterm, 2016-2025; and far-term, 2026-2035. In each term, we review progress that may occur across doctrine, organizations, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities and policy implications. The road map also provides a series of operational vignettes describing UAS employment across the operational spectrum. Appendices are used to provide additional detail on our systems, payloads, ground control stations, organizations and Army challenges.


An interesting insight occurred along our journey in this first road map, and it really should not have been surprising: Combat developers see unmanned systems, in general, and the unmanned aircraft systems, in specific, as a convenient solution toward meeting individual war-fighting functional capability gaps. The simplified version of this notion is that if a gap can be filled by an unmanned system (ground or air), the result is one less soldier performing that task and by extension one more soldier who can be assigned to a more complex task.

Late last year, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) authored an Unmanned Systems Initial Capabilities Document (ICD). This clearly lays out the increasing demand war fighters place on all types of robotic systems. For the purpose of brevity and specificity, the Army UAS road map highlights the growing demand for expanded UAS coverage in many areas and the ensuing challenges that expansion will bring. The UAS mission growth will exist in the following aviation mission areas: surveillance; command, control and communications (C3); armed reconnaissance; attack; sustainment and cargo; utility; and medical evacuation. UAS in support of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations is clearly a success story in our emerging UAS history. The Army intelligence community is analyzing how best to rebalance its forces to meet not only the challenges of today, but future demands as well. In the Joint Direct Support Airborne ISR ICD, there is an identified need for upward of 90 manned and unmanned orbits (90 x 24-hour sorties) to support the Army force generation model. An ongoing Army airborne ISR force mix study is analyzing data to identify those needs. These airborne ISR assets would come in a variety of aircraft and payloads and are dedicated to the ISR mission set. Future UAS will build the aerial layer of the Army’s networked force. Contingency operations require forces to operate without building cellular communications towers and securing them while maneuvering forces. This requirement has allowed UAS to emerge as the logical choice to provide the force the ability to communicate and share huge volumes of data.


The Joint Aerial Layer Network ICD describes using UAS to thicken the network to enable the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical and the Joint Tactical Radio System to function effectively.

The U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence based at Fort Rucker, Ala., recently completed the Aviation Study II, another transformational look at combat aviation formations. The study concluded that adding two Shadow UAS platoons to the armed reconnaissance squadron (ARS), in-lieu of nine OH-58D Kiowa Warrior scout helicopters, will provide for better reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition capabilities through the manned-unmanned teaming concept.

The advantages and disadvantages of the manned and unmanned platforms cancel out each other’s limitations when teamed together, providing for a greater synergistic effect. The ARS formation will now have 21 OH-58D and eight Shadow aircraft. An ongoing Armed Aero Scout Analysis of Alternatives is analyzing the ARS with only manned aircraft, with only unmanned aircraft, and with a mix of the two.

DoD and the Army have ongoing studies into brigade-and-below small UAS needs as a way to update several previous brigade combat team UAS mix analyses, to determine if the Army has adequate numbers and the right type of small UAS.

Whatever the results of these analyses, the aviation community has already blazed the trail in trading manned platforms for unmanned systems — the data and combat lessons learned prove we can do so with increased capability and lessened risk to our soldiers.


The largest new mission demand for UAS is in the area of sustainment support. Removing soldiers from road convoys and the exposure to the improvised explosive devices is undeniably a worthwhile manned-to-unmanned transition. The use of cargo UAS will provide excellent mission benefits when technology provides the equipment to make the cost-to-benefit analysis work.

The Marine Corps has led most of the efforts in cargo UAS development to date, with Army interest. However, the Army G4 (logistics) staff and TRADOC’s Sustainment Center of Excellence based at Fort Lee, Va., have chartered two studies that identified the advantages of cargo UAS in support of sustainment operations. Additionally, the Army’s Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center has proposed a joint capabilities technology demonstration that begins the Army’s technology development in this area. Naturally, the sustainment community desires dedicated cargo UAS to ensure they do not lose the capability to higher priority (or higher demand) attack, ISR or C3 missions.

Finally, the team encountered two areas where UAS expansion faces a great deal of trepidation from functional managers in the utility (personnel movement) and the medevac community. Both of these areas face cultural and ethical issues. At no time in the immediate future do Army leaders see transport of people by UAS. Likewise, the Army medical community deals with standards of care and ethics, which as a people we are not willing to place in the care of an unmanned system. The aviation community does not yet trust the technology enough to forecast a day when we would remove the responsibility of the pilot to safely transport soldiers (and react to contingencies such as enemy air defense, ground fire, aircraft malfunctions, etc). The medical community objects to casualty evacuation by UAS without human accompaniment onboard; based on moral and ethical grounds, it would constitute abandonment. We have common and accepted medical doctrine that ensures continuity of care, as well as standards of care for our wounded comrades. These standards extend from a battle buddy to a combat life-saver; from the CLS to a trained medic; and from the medic to a medical doctor.

The road map predicts that in the future, as technology improves and time leads to trust (a cultural change), there may come a day where perhaps some utility or casualty evacuation could be accomplished by an UAS or at least a reduced-crew aircraft.

Predicting technological progress and associating a timeline with that progress remain the biggest hurdles in any road map. In the UAS road map, the team rejected an outright prognostication of 100 percent unmanned by any date. The problem with these estimates is they are almost always wrong, and nobody wearing the Army combat uniform could foresee a day when we would distance ourselves from the soldier as the centerpiece of human warfare. Instead, the road map balances its forecast of the future for transitioning to unmanned systems with the following three caveats:

å Technology developments enable the capability.

å Resources in dollars and people are necessary to implement the capability (e.g., to do the experimentation and analysis) as well as realize the resource savings (UAS are cheaper and take fewer soldier operators).

å The UAS afford an increase in capability.

The Army will not transition to unmanned systems unless the capability provides a clear and acceptable increase in war-fighting capabilities. See figure 3.


The Army would like to investigate the use of optionally piloted vehicles, or OPV, as a way to bridge the transition between manned and solely unmanned air vehicles. The Army has a large capital investment in manned rotary-wing platforms and OPV provides a method of potentially increasing synergy through technological advancements. The OPV can best be described as having a three-way switch in the cockpit with zero, one and two as the selectable settings:

å The zero position means the aircraft is flying completely unmanned (perhaps for cargo UAS).

å The one position provides the addition of autonomy and flight-assist aids that allows a typically two-man aircraft to fly with a single pilot, perhaps for repetitive utility missions like battlefield circulation.

å The two position provides for two pilots for missions, such as armed reconnaissance, attack and medevac as they are flown today.

The initial advantages of an OPV would allow operation of the fleet for more hours in a 24-hour period. Army helicopter formations are manned at a 1.5 crew ratio per aircraft, with the half crew factor usually equating to the staff elements of a unit. One crew can typically fly eight hours per day. This leaves about 16 more hours in the day (less downtime for maintenance) that an Army helicopter could be additionally employed as an unmanned asset.


There is no doubt that our fixed-wing UAS provide better endurance to help fulfill the demand for persistent surveillance in our primarily ISR-centric UAS mission set. However, there’s also no denying that vertical takeoff and landing characteristics are inherently beneficial to land forces.

In addition to common operating systems and open architectures, the road map points out the need to seek technologies that close the gap between fixed-wing aerodynamic efficiencies and the advantages of point-to-point and zero airspeed required to perform missions such as sustainment resupply. Additionally, the trust that must be built between man and machine in the basic air worthiness of UAS and the level of robotic autonomy emerges as a leading litmus test in the transition debate.

There are two subsets to the autonomy discussion: good and bad autonomy. The good autonomy includes advances in automation that allow flying more aircraft, operating more payloads, using less bandwidth, and most importantly,. require fewer soldiers. The bad autonomy is the type where robotics begins to make life-or-death decisions based on computer algorithms. The question we must ask ourselves is, “How much self-sufficiency or sovereignty are Americans willing to provide these unmanned, highly mobile killers on the battlefield?” Generally, the Army consensus is “very little,” as the soldier remains the cognitive decision-maker in tactical action.

The road map points out that in the future our payloads will become so accurate that human biometric recognition software will identify a given threat to a high percentage of certainty. However, soldiers and commanders must retain the ability to decide what actions machines will be able to take. War, however unpleasant, remains a human condition and constantly reminds us why it is so unpleasant. The key in the pursuit of autonomy is to allow the machine to do what it does best — think inside binary data — and let humans do what they do best — think logically and cognitively. Technology must assist man, not take his place.

There are many more challenges for Army UAS. Following current contingency operations, many of our UAS — Army and joint service systems — will return to their home stations. Select access to the National Airspace System for training and proficiency remains the largest challenge. Not only must UAS fly so Army operators remain current and qualified but, more importantly, UAS must train overhead of combat formations so they can continue to refine and improve the integration of UAS into full-spectrum operations.

Bandwidth remains a consistent operational challenge that would only be exacerbated if all services elected to operate via satellite communications. The Army seeks a balanced approach of operating line-of-sight both through tactical common data links and through satellite communications.

The road map points out the importance of improving protection of the electromagnetic spectrum. Information warfare depends upon this.

Finally, knowing the great successes experienced with small, relatively inexpensive UAS, our adversaries are also preparing to increase their UAS employment. Therefore, a comprehensive review of countering threat UAS is in order.

This first edition of the road map provides direction and a nested vision for the future of Army UAS employment. Army UAS are a proven combat multiplier because they increase situational awareness leading to situational understanding, thereby reducing soldier workloads and reducing the risks soldiers face. The use of weapons in the 21st century and beyond will have to become more precise and produce effects-based targeting at the intended objective to prevent collateral damage.

We predict that ground troops will continue as the tool of choice as UAS provide the ability to lessen the mitigating effects of collateral damage. The ability to develop the right combat force to meet a full spectrum of future operations will be based upon the capabilities that UAS can provide.

The Army intends to revise this road map strategy by updating it every two years. It will continue to serve as a nested document and will provide input to form a future road map to explore other areas of commonality with ground unmanned systems.

The estimation of UAS in the future is an aggressive, but realistic vision of ways to continue to exploit this new revolution in military affairs. What is clear is Army UAS have earned their wings in battle and are truly the eyes of the Army. Weapons in the 21st century and beyond will have to become more precise and produce the desired effects on the intended target to prevent collateral damage.

It is our prediction that ground troops will become more the tool of choice as world conflicts continue. The former and present superpowers will be less focused on geopolitical disputes with one another as they shift focus to global sharing of energy and natural resources through their influence of developing nations. The importance of getting it right militarily in the future will be incumbent upon the abilities and capabilities which tactical UAS can provide. AFJ

Col. Christopher B. Carlile is the former director of the. Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala.; he is now the commander of the Army’s Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas. Retired Army Lt. Col. Glenn Rizzi serves as the senior technical adviser and deputy director of the UAS Center of Excellence. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department. To download a PDF version of the Army UAS Roadmap, visit www.rucker.army.mil/usaace/uas.