The Air Force is using a two-ship approach to operations with its unmanned aircraft, described as a lead aircraft accompanied by a second, each providing the other mutual support.
"So typically right now as MQ-9s [Reapers] are tasked – and MQ-1s [Predators] – it’s one airplane to achieve one mission. What we’ve found out at…weapons school is that you can have twice the effect sometimes twice as fast with two airplanes," Lt Col Landon, chief of MQ-1 and MQ-9 operations in the persistent attack and reconnaissance division at Air Combat Command, told C4SIRNET in a recent interview. For security reasons, we refer to him by only his rank and first name.
Expanding on this concept, Landon said "it would be like an F-16 – you have a lead, you have a number two – they operate two-ship operations for mutual support of one another and then in the MQ-9-MQ-1 world we’ve taken that mutual support construct and changed it to or have grown it to achieve effects on the battlefield faster, whether those are kinetic or non-kinetic effects."
First devised at the weapons school, the tactic is one of the new concepts being gamed at the annual Red Flag exercise that takes place at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, said Landon. The purpose is to get folks ready for combat missions in a realistic combat training environment involving a bevy of manned aircraft integrating with unmanned aircraft.
"I think that people will not be aware of the fact that the MQ-9 can operate as a two-ship and it is happening in limited amounts in combat," he said. "We’re finding in some places that one aircraft is not enough to meet the requirements. In some situations we’ll have two airplanes tasked to the same area on similar missions. And that’s when we take…sensors being like [Multi-Spectral Targeting System] or the synthetic aperture radar...to mass those for an effect or...mass weapons for an effect."
Red Flag is a good venue to demonstrate and execute this ability of operating two Reapers in the same area, he explained. "In combat," he continued, "we find that at times we are in a position to operate either in a formation or as two independent aircraft come together to execute the mission and we find that we are more successful with multiple sensors and multiple weapons to achieve whatever effect it is that we’re trying to chase after."
These two-ship operations involve two separate combat air patrols, or CAPs. A CAP typically consists of four aircraft and enable the force to rotate aircraft into the sky for constant monitoring of a particular area. The Air Force currently operates 60 CAPs daily, but the Pentagon announced plans last year to increase the overall CAPs to 90 by 2019, with the following breakdown; the Air Force will remain at 60 (given the high demand its work force face, increasing its CAPs is not feasible), the Army will contribute between 10 and 20 per day, Special Operations Command will contribute 10 per day and contractors will contribute 10 CAPs strictly providing ISR sorties, not strike, which is against the laws of war.
Providing a brief vignette of how this comes together during operations, Landon said aircraft are "tasked to operate in the same area on the same mission and then as airmen we determine to best meet the desired effect, we have a faster way of doing that and that would typically be through a two-ship, but two combat air patrols coming together to operate as one."
The force is "pushing the bounds of tactics," he added, with Reapers and Predators executing as two-ships, which is not how the service has operated in the past.
During Red Flag, remotely piloted aircraft such as the MQ-1 and MQ-9 don’t participate in ISR, but rather combat missions. They work with manned assets to practice and game "the kinetic side of the operation," Landon said, conducting close air support, flight coordination reconnaissance and combat search and rescue, for example. These exercise help the force determine how to deconflict the air space with all these various assets in close air support missions, for instance, he said.
A recent focus of Red Flag has been on the contested, degraded and operationally limited environment, he said. As peer competitors continue to field more advanced capabilities such as radar, signal jamming equipment that can interrupt the satellite communications signal necessary to pilot RPA, or anti-aircraft batteries, which taken to together are referred to as anti-access/area denial, slow moving RPAs can be susceptible to being shot down and even rendered ineffective. These systems excelled in the permissive air environments against technologically inferior insurgent groups conducting counterterrorism and high-value individual targeting operations.
During a luncheon keynote last year, then- assistant deputy chief of Staff, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Maj. Gen. Linda Urrutia-Varhall, noted that Russia and China are advancing their capabilities in this space creating A2/AD environments while 80 percent of airmen entered the force after 9/11, meaning all they know is the counterterrorism fight. While Urrutia-Varhall, now the director of operations at NGA, said the Air Force won’t walk away from counterterrorism, it must adjust to new threats as the intense high-value terrorist target mission contributed to a neglect in other capabilities and mission sets.
It is still unclear how the Air Force seeks to adapt these platforms for these environments. In many cases, the force is still working on it with concepts such as the third offset strategy. "I think we’re still sort of learning -- how do you take the advantages that you’ve achieved in this network, in the permissive [environment of southwest Asia], and sort of be able to take it into the non-permissive?" saidMaj. Gen. Jeffery Newell, the Air Force's director of strategy, concepts and assessments and deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements. "I’m not sure that I have great answers for you other than we see the value of it, we see that it is forever a part of how our Air Force operates, and I think you’re going to see that us [exploiting] the advantages of a persistent ISR network and [applying] it to an A2/AD environment will be a challenge for us that will continue."
Likely, future operating concepts will involve a combination of aircraft – manned and unmanned to include small devices designed to swarm and overwhelm enemy radar or anti-aircraft. Landon did not provide specifics regarding new concepts the force intends to employ in this complex space, but did, however offer "right now in [Operation Inherent Resolve] we are operating in a contested environment. A very complex environment as you know from what we’re seeing in the news with the diplomatic efforts of the Russians…the fact is that yes there is value and we are applying these lessons learned in the current combat environment."
He added that Red Flag allows the force to educate airmen about multiple aircraft and capabilities to prepare them for combat.