Crafting a New Paradigm for Manned-Unmanned Systems: Lieutenant-General Deptula Reflects on the MQ-X


In late May 2010, SLD sat down to continue the conversation begun earlier in the year with the Lieutenant-General Deptula with regard to the impact of remotely piloted aircraft on the shifting paradigms for air operations.

SLD: You have talked about a shift in paradigms for air operations associated with remotely piloted aircraft.   Could you clarify your thinking about the shift?

Lieutenant-General Deptula: We are moving into an era that is much different than the one we just left.  Now, that might seem obvious; but moving from the 20th to the 21st century was not just a convenient break point, but it is moving away from the industrial age of conducting warfare into an information age to a degree that is only going to accelerate.

There are people that have grown up their entire careers used to the employment of weapon systems in a linear fashion to execute warfare.  Today we are faced with a different set of security conditions.  Accordingly, we have to change our conceptions for how to effectively accomplish our security objectives, to adapt them to the flatness of the way information is collected, analyzed and distributed.

We can either capitalize on the technologies that the F-22s, F-35s and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) bring to the table or not.  We can move further into the information age or we can apply old concepts of operation to new equipment.  Such a failure to adapt will prohibit us from exploiting the potential of the manned-remotely piloted aircraft interface.

SLD: So you are talking about the possibility of a paradigm shift in air operations, as shift facilitated by the technology but can only be realized by a shift in con-ops as well?

Lieutenant-General Deptula: That gets us into the issue of how are we’re using remotely piloted aircraft, and how they may be used in the future.

Currently, we are using or applying remotely piloted aircraft today in a fashion that resemble the use of segregated ISR platforms in the past.  The RPAs have an advantage of providing persistence in this role, even if segregated in con-ops.

97-percent of the remotely piloted aircraft today are used to acquire intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.  The MQ-1 and the MQ-9 do have force application capability and when their capability is used it dramatically shrinks the ISR strike equation to a matter of single-digit minutes.

Their predominate use today is to acquire information.  So while that information is used in conjunction with other force operations, whether they be surface-based or air-based, we still have a long way to go to really achieve seamless integration between remotely piloted and manned vehicles.

SLD: But to achieve the breakthroughs you are discussing, there will have to be as much boldness in re-designing con-ops as developing technology.  And we have to move beyond simply relying on iterative technological development.

Lieutenant- General Deputla: I would tell you in the past we let imagination drive technology.  Where we are today, is technology is driving our imagination.  Where we need to get to is back to where our imagination drives the technology and permits con-ops breakthroughs.

We need to have imagination driving technology instead of just taking technologies that are handed to us and applying them in old ways.  That’s letting technology drive us.  And that’s kind of where we are with remotely piloted aircraft today.  We’re trying to figure out how we can plug them into conventional concepts of operation.  We are today with remotely piloted aircraft about where we were in 1918-1920 with manned aircraft.  Who was the first organizational crowd that bought in the airplane?  It was the signal corps.  The U.S. Army Signal Corps.  They applied it in a fashion that matched what they were used to doing.

SLD:   Instead of balloons.

Lieutenant-General Deptula: They wanted to see over there, they wanted to see further, they wanted to be able to communicate.  Well, that’s great,but they’re not the ones that came up with the construct of strategic application of force to directly achieve security objectives. The other question is, is what are the forces for change?  What will allow this new paradigm to be built?  And I go back to it is a combination of imagination that we ought to use to lead technology.

In the instance of remotely piloted aircraft, where are we going?  What I’m trying to drive is a concept for MQ-X that is not just a better version of the MQ-9. The MQ-9 is a better version of the MQ-1.  It flies twice as high; twice as fast, carries six times as much payload and son and so forth.  There are some people out there who just want to build a bigger, better, higher, faster, greater payload capacity remotely piloted aircraft.

However, what we really need to do, and what I’ve tried to accomplish in building this remotely piloted aircraft flight plan, is not simply build a remotely piloted aircraft because it’s remotely piloted aircraft, but address how we can take new technologies that enable remote operations and apply them to our entire set of Air Force core function areas.  Where can that technology be best applied across the core function areas to increase effectiveness for air operations?  And then you look at the kind of design that you might want to pursue.

SLD: You talked earlier about modularity; how might that drive a new paradigm?

Lieutenant-General Deptula: Resource constraints are driving us to fewer and fewer aircraft types, which then drives the idea of something we haven’t done in the aviation arena yet. The whole notion of modularity suggests that you can accomplish different mission sets by changing the configuration of the aircraft itself.

This  may require an approach different from conventional aircraft design. Imagine a common fuselage, but the wing structure can be changed based on how fast or how survivable or how low observable the overall aircraft needs to be for a particular threatenvironment—or  maybe change the empennage.  Or we change out the payload structure.  We need to build the next generation RPA  to perform more than just one function.

That’s one of the key drivers  of MQ-X as we design it—modularly.  Survivability is also absolutely key as we look to the future.  We do not need any more aircraft that can only operate in uncontested airspace.  We have plenty of those.  This is going to be a challenge.

SLD:   And presumably you are focusing on the con-ops as well as the technology.

Lieutenant-General Deptula: We tend to channelize ourselves into stealth, which is good, but it’s also expensive, so we want to be able to produce sufficient numbers of these things, although technology’s helping us with the expense thing.  This is what I talked with you about earlier—the notion of a fractionated set of systems.  You have sufficient quantity of systems that if you lose some you can still achieve your overall degree of effectiveness by those that are remaining.

The other part of the equation from a RPA perspective is moving toward greater degrees of autonomous operation to avoid the vulnerabilities associated with current command and control arrangements. A greater degree of autonomy brings with it a completely different set of concepts where you can use remotely piloted aircraft to enhance or extend the influence that is brought to the fight by an F35 or an F22.

What you and I are talking about in terms of being able to pair up remotely piloted aircraft with manned aircraft envisions a seamlessness of operations between the two that we have yet to achieve.  It is something that I believe we should aspire to so that we can leverage manned aircraft to a degree we have  yet to achieve because we have not had the RPA capabilities to match up with them before.  However, that’s the direction we need to move, and that’s the kind of leverage or potential that F35 and F22 bring to the equation.  We need to apply this kind of conceptual planning for the integration of RPAs with our next generation, long-range ISR strike aircraft as well.


*** Posted On July 14th 2010