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Fighter jets, stealth bombers, attack drones and air-traveling missiles all need to “operate at speed” in a fast-changing great power conflict era. What that means is that “sensor to shooter” time (how fast data can go from a sensor to a war-fighter) needs to be drastically sped up. Without that speed, warfighters won’t be able to react as quickly to threats and it will be harder to win.

When faced with fast, multi-frequency, long-range precision fire from enemy air defenses, air attackers simply must “operate at speed,” according to U.S. Air Forces, Europe Commander General Jeffrey Harrigian, who used the phrase in a discussion with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. 

Harrigian, who is also now the Commander of U.S. Air Forces Africa, ran much of the air campaign during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS; he offered a first-hand war perspective in a conversation with retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute.

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The opportunity to operate with air supremacy in uncontested environments is, essentially, over, as joint forces prepare for warfare in high-threat areas against advanced enemy forces, sophisticated air defenses and rival fifth-generation stealth fighters. U.S. forces, of course, enjoyed overwhelming air superiority during the years of counterinsurgency in Iran and Afghanistan, a circumstance enabling most key combat decisions to travel all the way up the echelon into an “air operations center.” Now, warfighters and commanders themselves operating at the edge of combat will need to be empowered to make more decisions independently for a simple reason: the speed of attack.

File photo - A pilot looks up from a U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter as it prepares to refuel in mid-air with a KC-135 refuelling plane over European airspace during a flight to Britain from Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania April 25, 2016.

File photo – A pilot looks up from a U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter as it prepares to refuel in mid-air with a KC-135 refuelling plane over European airspace during a flight to Britain from Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania April 25, 2016.
(REUTERS/Toby Melville)

“Years of operating in uncontested environments provided an opportunity to have some time to make decisions and bring them back into a command center. When troops are in contact and you start targeting in a dynamic environment, you don’t want to over centralize. Let your commanders operate, and trust the guys at the tip of the spear,” Harrigian said.

While pilots and Commanders have of course always had the ability to respond as needed under enemy fire or in intense combat situations, newer threats and advanced, long-range sensor technology will require forward-attackers themselves to operate with even more autonomy.

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Advanced command and control technologies, including AI applications and sensor networking are also expected to greatly expedite this kind of tactical approach, as air fighters and commanders on the ground are likely to have a more immediate, informed sense of specific circumstances. Should an enemy fifth-generation fighter or long-range air-attack be incoming, pilots and commanders simply will not have time for a full complement of high-echelon commanders to make a decision regarding counterattack. These combat Tactics, Techniques and Procedures provide key parts of the conceptual inspiration for the Pentagon’s emerging Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) program.

The tactical concept, Harrigian explained, is to “trust the guys at the tip of the spear who understand commanders’ intent.”

“As commanders, we need to do a better job of how we provide intent to support decisions in flight. At the end of the day you need to go from sensor to shooter as quickly as possible,” he added.

During the course of his discussion with Harrigian, Deptula asked about how his experience as an Air Commander fighting against Russian-built air defenses has influenced his tactical thinking. Harrigian specifically cited Russian weapons as an area of particular concern.

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“We don’t want to train every three months. We need muscle memory fighting against air defenses,” he said.

— Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest –

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As the Army looks toward future warfare scenarios, it is increasingly emphasizing the need to fully network air and ground drones to one another to defend advancing armored units in war, launch coordinated attacks and pursue new applications of Combined Arms Maneuver.

Much of this hinges upon taking new steps with automation and AI systems to not only connect manned vehicles with air and ground drones, but also extend command and control options by networking drones-to-drones in combat autonomously. Much of the work is taking place with Army Futures Command’s Artificial Intelligence Task Force in Pittsburgh, Pa., which is working closely with Carnegie Mellon University.

“Up at CMU they are working on algorithms to link ground and air vehicles—and it becomes not manned-unmanned teaming, but unmanned-unmanned teaming. Go out in this grid square and go identify this threat, so from a ground and air perspective, those vehicles talk to each other. We are collecting training data to train our algorithms,” General John Murray, Commanding General of Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview.

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So what would unmanned-unmanned teaming look like? What undiscovered advantages would it bring to combat? The Army is already successfully testing, developing and even deploying elements of ground and air manned-unmanned teaming. Moreover, the Army also already enables airborne helicopters to control both the flight path and sensor payload of nearby drones from the cockpit, and the service continues to make rapid progress with its Robotic Combat Vehicle program to create multiple variants of ground-combat robots.

A U.S. Predator drone flies above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010 - file photo.

A U.S. Predator drone flies above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010 – file photo.
(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Part of this broad unmanned system effort has also involved the use of large robotic combat vehicles being used, for instance, to breach a tank ditch with soldiers hundreds of meters away to enable follow-on armored columns to more safely and effectively cross difficult terrain and advance in combat. The concept, of course, is to use forward operating drones to carry ammunition, conduct reconnaissance, breach obstacles, assist ground-attack command and control and even fire weapons when controlled by a human operator.

A new phase would be to connect ground and air autonomous systems to one another, as Murray indicated. In a tactical scenario, for instance, an air drone could identify maneuvering enemy formations, quickly process and disseminate combat-crucial elements from its video sensors using advanced algorithms and cue a small fleet of advancing ground drones. Such a synergy would give ground commanders an integrated air-ground combat picture in real-time, massively improving attack options—all from a safer standoff distance.

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A key advantage of this kind of technical advance is, simply put, speed. Ground attackers could have more vital information faster amid quick-changing land war dynamics, without having to separately stovepipe drone sensor data at separate command and control centers or experience substantial latency. Perhaps of greatest importance, much of the data would autonomously be analyzed and organized for human decision-makers, in a matter of seconds in some instances. AI-enabled processing systems can increasingly draw upon vast databases to assess prior combat scenarios, assess a wide range of combat factors such as navigation, weather and heat signatures from enemy vehicles. This means they can perform near real-time analytics on the information and quickly inform friendly ground forces.

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For instance, a ground drone could surveil an enemy target and instantly calculate its distance, speed and various characteristics based on existing data. Imagine this kind of information being bounced off a database to quickly identify the exact threat. Or perhaps an AI system can analyze which weapons might be most effective against a certain target by virtue of performing near instant analysis of prior combat scenarios. Once many of these calculations are made autonomously, information can then transmit to an air drone which might be in a better position to attack. From there, the airborne drone would perform its own AI-enabled analytics—giving ground Commanders a nearly immediate option to destroy a moving enemy quickly.

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