Manned-unmanned Teaming: The Future of Combat Air Systems

1.0 So what?

Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) is one of the Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS) spearheads. Its contributions could revolutionise the air combat field, considerably enhancing efficiency while diminishing risks and collateral damages. On 16 December 2022, the government of France, Spain and Germany signed a 3.2 billion euro deal with Airbus, Indra, Dassault Aviation and their partners to continue the development of this technology in Europe. 

2.0 Genesis

The first appearance of the concept dates to 1997, when the US Army’s Air Mobility Battle Lab started a series of related studies at Fort Rucker, AL. [source]

Also, thanks to the success of these studies, in 2005, the US Air Force started the program as “loyal wingman” to develop the MUM-T concept [source]. In 2011, the US army accomplished a relevant result by coordinating the Manned-Unmanned Systems Integration Capability (MUSIC) Exercise [source]. This achievement was further strengthened by the 2015 and 2017 US accomplishment of two demonstrative flights of two F-16. One of the planes was readapted to act as a UCAV [source].

In December 2022, Airbus and its partners successfully completed the first European demo mission involving MUM-T technology [source]. This accomplishment has strengthened the European hopes to develop this NGWS independently, resulting in the signature of a multi-billionaire contract among France, Spain, and Germany with Dassault Aviation, Indra, Eumet, Airbus and their partners. The contract will last three and half years [source]. 

3.0 Technology’s overview

MUM-T is part of the Next-Generation Weapon System (NGWS), a family of networked technology “for the control and operation of weapons of a particular kind” [source]. This combat system enables the operative cooperation between Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), both offensive (UCAVs, link Alec) or not, and Manned Aerial Vehicles (e.g. jets, helicopters) aiming to improve situational awareness (SA), survivability and lethality. For these reasons, MUM-T is often defined as a force multiplier [source]. 

Predominantly, the UAVs perform Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR). Particularly suitable for these tasks are the Do-DT25 Airbus drones equipped with optical sensors (Electronic Support Measures and Electro-Optical cameras). Nevertheless, the MUM-T strategy also applies to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) such as the MQ-9 Reaper. In a nutshell, MUM-T is a flexible force multiplier.

There are different degrees of cooperation between Manned and Unmanned vehicles. These are Levels Of Interoperability (LOIs). [source

Rossetti 2022, p.44 [source]

As the LOI grows, the manned control over the Unmanned components rises. A higher LOI is desirable because it decreases risks while bolstering Situational Awareness (SA). However, an overload risk could negatively affect the crew’s attention on navigation, Flying Awareness (FA), diminishing the operation’s efficacy and potentially decreasing survivability.  

3.1 Advantages

MUM-T has consistent advantages:

  1. Reduced costs: on average, UAVs are 10% cheaper than manned counterparts and require fewer training hours[source
  2. Increased survivability: In action, UAVs will perform the most dangerous tasks while protecting the MAV if required.
  3. Increased lethality and reduced collateral damages: drones’ optical sensors allow them to implement ISTAR functions, leading to more precise enemy identification and neutralisation. Besides, UCAVs can perform dangerous activities efficiently. 
  4. High adaptability: UAVs’ activities are not limited to ISTAR and offensive tasks. Indeed, these devices are helpful as decoys, search and rescue operations, electronic attacks and supply transportation and drop. [source]

These advantages make the MUM-T a force multiplier, sustaining the human operators in the decision-making. 

4.0 Limits and solutions

Despite the tremendous advantages of this collaborative technology, there are some drawbacks. One of the most relevant is the overload risk. [source] Indeed, the amount of information collected by the ISTAR activities might surcharge the human operators, decreasing the operation’s efficiency.

Several studies focused on this issue, paying particular attention to the cockpit design and equipment [source] [source]. Regarding the AH-64E Apache helicopter, in 2015, Taylor suggested two innovations: 

  1.  The Sensor Guide Mode (LOI 3.5):  partial relief of the navigation responsibility while maintaining the sensor’s control. [source]
  2. Sensor Slave Functionality: a function capable of automatically harmonising the UAV optical sensor with the Apache’s one, thus reducing the input. 

Besides, The US Supervisory Controller for Optional Role Allocation for Cueing of Human Operators program (SCORCH) is exemplary. It articulates the potential solutions on three separate axes: 

  1. Revised pilot-vehicle interface: optimisation of the cockpit by integrating the HD full-colour touchscreen displays to overcome the rigidity of the traditional button system. 
  2. Sensor management aide: Algorithms capable of independently searching the ground through the control of the UA optical sensors. 
  3. Attention allocation aide: Cognitive Decisions Aiding System (CDAS) that would improve the crew search behaviour by detecting eye movement and suggesting areas that lack focus. 
Pilot-vehicle interface developed for the SCORCH program [source]

5.0 Conclusion

MUM-T is a promising weapon system that aims to coordinate Manned and Unmanned vehicles, combining their complementary strengths. More specifically, MUM-T advantages are abating costs, reducing collateral damages, improving lethality, increasing survivability and high adaptability. Even if there is an overload risk for human operators, technological innovations offer multiple solutions to this issue. The multibillion-dollar investments from some European countries further confirm this technology’s validity and immense potential.

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