The US Army is developing a ‘pocket’ swarm of combat drones
WASHINGTON, (BM) – The US Army is intensively developing small drones that will be launched from the deck of combat helicopters as part of the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA), a program of a new reconnaissance and attack machine, learned BulgarianMilitary.com citing Defence24.
The group, or rather a swarm of such UAVs labeled ALE (Air Launch Effects), is to provide support, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and the role of circulating ammunition. It can be said that while the US Air Force is betting on an expensive, unmanned wingman, the army sees the future in a swarm of specialized machines fired massively like rockets.
Contracts worth 3.97 million dollars concluded in recent days regarding the development of individual components of the future ALE platform by 10 leading entities in the aviation and defense industry in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles indicate that this is a priority. The US Army wants to develop this program of airborne UAVs from the development phase to operational applications within the next 4 years.
However, work on this system has been going on for years. They are part of the concept of creating the ability to operate US Army helicopters on the battlefield of a modern, symmetrical armed conflict with a technically advanced enemy.
As part of the development of the ALE concept, in March 2020, from the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, the ALTUS (Air-Launched, Tube-Integrated, Unmanned System) drone was launched from a launcher resembling Spike or TOW guided missile launchers. In June, similar tests were carried out with the MALE MQ-1C Gray Hawk drone used by the US Army. These machines can be controlled from the deck of the AH-64E Apache.
The ALTUS system, tested under the ALE program, weighs from 9 to approx. 12 kg (depending on the load configuration), it can stay in the air for 4 hours and travel up to 440 km. The length of the fuselage is 1.015 m and the wingspan of folding wings is 2.5 m. The maximum speed is 90 knots (over 165 km / h) and the cruising speed is 60 knots (110 km / h). This gives some idea of what the ALE US Army is looking for.
Fast development path
Published on August 12, 2020 by the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Center, responsible for the development and implementation of new technologies, the ALE Request for Proposals (RFI), contains further information on the expectations of the “loyal swarm”.
It is primarily intended for the machines selected in the FARA program, the finalists of which are Bell 360 Invictus and Sikorsky Raider X. The goal is to create a reconnaissance and impact helicopter supporting the AH-64E Apache Guardian machines and serving as the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior withdrawn many years ago. Its implementation into service is scheduled for the early 2030s.
However, ALE will go into service much earlier. Their implementation is planned by 2024, which will allow for testing and refining their use. They will be carried by the AH-64E Apache, the MALE MQ-1C Gray Eagle class machines that support them, and in the future also by the FLRAA (Future Long Range Assault Aircraft) platforms, the successor of the Black Hawk helicopter family. So it can be said that the entire US Army fleet is to be surrounded by swarms of helpful drones offering a wide range of applications in key reconnaissance and defense issues.
A multi-purpose hive protecting a helicopter
Air Launch Effects (ALE), as the name suggests, are to be launched or ejected in flight from the parent machine and generate a variety of effects. The scope of tasks is wide and includes active and passive means of electronic warfare and protection of the parent machine, as well as reconnaissance, disruption and destruction of the enemy’s defenses. This means that a wide range of machines, or rather “warheads”, is needed for a common carrier: from visual, radar and electronic reconnaissance systems, through jamming and decoy systems, to circulating ammunition.
The dimensions and weight are crucial here, because due to lower costs and increased flexibility of use, unmanned aerial vehicles will not be constantly accompanying manned machines like the Loyal Wingman of the US Air Force. BUT they will only be fired when needed and written off when the task is completed. This means the need to devote a part of the mass of the transferred weapons or fuel to them.
The slogan “swarm of small drones” is a bit misleading here. There are two weight categories: heavier BSL weighing from 150 to 250 pounds (up to 113 kg) and lighter ones, not exceeding 60 pounds (27 kg). For a better idea of what we’re talking about: the heavier UAV is to have a mass between the Spike NLOS and the standard MK81 aerial bomb, and the lighter one is more or less the equivalent of a Spike missile. So it is not an unmanned aerial vehicle that we usually classify as small.
We are talking about machines whose flight time will not exceed a few hours. Tested under the ALE bsl type ALTUS weighing up to 12 kg, it can fly about 4 hours. During this time, BUTs are to perform quite difficult tasks that require a lot of power, such as the use of active sensors or systems that interfere with or simulate the emission of a larger combat machine. As if that were not enough, artificial intelligence is entering the scene.
The US Army is “very interested”, we read in the documents, that ALE perform their assigned tasks as autonomously as possible, without the need for direct control, and have the ability to “self-organize thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) enabling the creation of task teams to cover the allocated scope. mission, area and tasks. ” Information exchange is to be carried out not only with the parent machine, but also with integrated battlefield management systems (BMS) and in cooperation with other unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the MQ-1C Gray Hawk, which can be controlled with, among others from the AH-64E Apache Guardian. BUT, therefore, are to constitute a self-organizing, quite autonomously operating formation of machines accompanying the army aviation in the most difficult operations.
Some of the possibilities that such a system can offer were shown by the Bell concern in companies promoting the Bell 360 Invictus machine. There you can see how the ALE light drone missiles fired from its deck accompany the machine, detect targets and destroy them as much as possible, transmitting information constantly to the helicopter, but carrying out assigned tasks independently, according to the selected attack algorithm.
The challenge in the ALE program is not only quite broad requirements for both measures and synergies in terms of independence and interaction with other unmanned systems. Time is also running out, as the RFI was published on August 12, and the deadline for submitting proposals is September 14, 2020. Therefore, solutions that already exist or are at an advanced stage of development may be taken into account.
The US Army does not want to wait long for a realistically available, effective system of launched unmanned aerial vehicles, which are to be used not only for helicopter equipment, but also for heavier unmanned platforms, such as the MQ-1C Gray Hawk. According to the contracts signed recently with 10 American manufacturers, already in 2022, the integration of all ALE projects into the final configuration is to be carried out, so that in 2024 it is possible to implement the pre-functioning system.
ALE task? Maintain the advantage of the US Army aviation over the enemy
Where does this rush come from? It results directly from the analyzes of operational possibilities and potential armed conflicts that emerge from the analyzes of the last few years. The risk of US Army operations in the conditions of a modern battlefield with high saturation with air defense and electronic warfare systems has significantly increased.
A more symmetrical conflict and action against forces such as Russia or even China is a much more difficult challenge than prosecuting even the best-armed rebels. In the face of such threats, the US Army wants to maintain the advantage provided by the latest unmanned technologies.
Particular emphasis was placed on wide-range recognition, both active and passive, which is the key to effectively combating threats and the most important targets. The second most important direction is electronic combat, disruption and false targets (decoys), which are not only to draw fire from manned machines, but also to persuade the enemy to activate defense systems. This means disclosure of their position, identification, classification, and allows for destruction or avoidance.
All this is part of the concept of integrated activities in an environment of intensive information exchange. At the same time, assuming strong countermeasures on the part of the enemy, the US Army requires systems such as ALE to require extensive autonomy. Goals and tasks must be assigned by a person, but the way of their implementation, reaching the target or navigation and flight control is to be “in the hands of” advanced software and artificial intelligence. This will make it possible to relieve the weapons operators and pilots, while increasing the number of machines that the operator will be able to manage at the same time.
It can be said that while the US Air Force is looking for a “Loyal Wingman” for their machines, who will accompany them from take-off to landing, the US Army focuses on an “intelligent swarm” for which its helicopters will be both a nest and a queen who must be protected at all costs. The swarm consists of cheaper, disposable unmanned aerial vehicles that are much easier to manufacture and can be easily transported to the front line along with ammunition and fuel as one more combat measure.
This approach results directly from the method of operation of land forces and the specificity of the use of helicopters. Time will show whether the ALE RFI will soon lead to the entry of such machines into service. However, it is not disputed that the saturation of more and more advanced and autonomous UAVs on the modern battlefield will continue to grow.
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