AFA CONFERENCE: Time was, the Air Force wanted nothing to do with drones that weren’t built to be shot down. Now, after flying big, armed drones more than 2.4 million hours, the service has decided it wants to buy little ones in swarms – and fly them that way, too.
Buying Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS), meaning those that weigh less than 1,320 pounds, is one of numerous lessons learned over the nearly 15 years the Air Force has been flying armed MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, said Lt. Col. Jason Willey, one of four Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) operators on a panel at the annual Air Force Association conference.
“These aircraft traditionally are perceived as serving in limited tactical roles organic to ground units,” said Willey, MQ-9 Branch Chief in the RPA Capabilities Division of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. “However, in early 2016, the Air Force plans to release the first ever Small UAS flight plan with the intent to open the aperture, enhancing Small UAS roles and missions well beyond their current use.”
Whether that goal can be reached will depend on whether small drones can be improved to fly with the endurance and range of Predators, which can stay in the air 24 hours or more, or Reapers, which typically stay airborne for around 18 hours, depending on what they’re carrying. SUAS typically fly for only a couple of hours at best, especially if they rely on batteries for power. But with the persistence of a Reaper, Willey said, SUAS could provide serious leverage by providing additional sensors and more easily penetrating hostile air defenses.
“Small UASes can be employed in both permissive and non-permissive environments,” Willey said, because “low cost, small UASes are proving difficult to find, fix and track.” As he made that point, Willey showed a slide that listed “swarming'” as among the ways little drones could be employed — a tactic the Army and Navy have been developing.