TCS Daily

Behold the Mothership

By Kenneth Silber - September 5, 2003 12:00 AM

The growing role of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in combat has given rise to expectations -- both hopes and fears -- that UAVs increasingly will take over functions from fighter jets and their pilots. It has been thought that the human role in combat aviation will both shrink and be largely relegated to people on the ground.


However, as often occurs with scenarios about humans being automated out of the picture, the reality may turn out to be very different. One thrust of current technology development pushes in the opposite direction, giving fighter pilots a new and crucial role and turning their fighter planes into "motherships" that will control UAVs from the air.


A new program at Boeing's Phantom Works (as the company's research and development arm is called) aims to enable a two-seat fighter jet such as an F-15E to serve as a command-and-control center for UAVs. It is hoped that, within two years, the program will demonstrate that a fighter jet can send a UAV ahead to locate targets or air defenses. A later goal would be for the fighter to direct the UAV in striking at targets.


The program, which goes by the ungainly name Embedded System Infosphere Interoperability Demonstration (ESIID), was described in the August 18, 2003 issue of Aviation Week. ESIID builds on recent advances at Phantom Works in expanding airborne communications and computing links. Such research is in keeping with the military's growing emphasis on "network-centric" warfare, in which vast quantities of information can be readily shared among different components of a fighting force.


Earlier this year, a technology demonstration was conducted in which two piloted planes -- an F-15E and a 737, flying over 100 miles apart -- coordinated an attack on a simulated surface-to-air missile launcher. A two-way Internet-like connection was established between the two planes, such that the crews could share images and overlays; a picture of a target area, for instance, could be marked with text or circles or hand-drawn lines. The simulated launcher, though hidden in a wooded area, was located on the first pass.


An F-15E typically carries a pilot and a backseat weapons officer. If the plane were serving as a mothership, the backseat officer would coordinate one or more UAVs while the pilot focuses on flying. ESIID project managers hope to establish that an F-15E can operate in coordination with a fast, combat-oriented UAV such as the Boeing X-45. Since an F-15E does not have stealth technology, there would be a huge advantage in sending fast, stealthy UAVs ahead, allowing human pilots to avoid lethal air defenses.


Placing control of a UAV in the air, rather than on the ground, may enable a degree of flexibility and awareness that would not be matched by a pilot operating at headquarters. It is likely that the combination of piloted vehicles and UAVs will save the lives of pilots, while maintaining the advantages of having pilots in the air. One can imagine, also, that attacks and maneuvers of unprecedented complexity will be developed, as aviators learn to think of themselves as commanders not only of their own planes but of fleets of UAVs.


Even once all that takes shape, there may remain circumstances in which a ground-based UAV commander will be the optimal arrangement, just as there may still be situations calling for an unaccompanied pilot in the sky. But the development of combinations of manned and unmanned air combat operations will mean an expanded range of options. Motherships may play a key role in winning future wars.


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