Cover: Operating Low-Cost, Reusable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Contested Environments

Operating Low-Cost, Reusable Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Contested Environments

Preliminary Evaluation of Operational Concepts

Published May 11, 2020

by Thomas Hamilton, David A. Ochmanek


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Research Questions

  1. What are the key characteristics of attritable UAVs?
  2. How do UAVs communicate with one another and with incoming weapons?
  3. To what extent are UAVs susceptible to adversary jamming?
  4. What are some concepts for operating UAV launch and recovery teams in forward operating areas?

There are disquieting trends in the military balance of power. Both Russia and China are fielding military capabilities and postures that, in wartime, would make it extremely challenging for U.S. forces to project power and defeat large-scale aggression. The 2018 National Defense Strategy called on the U.S. Department of Defense to turn priority attention to developing innovative capabilities and concepts for confronting these challenges.

The U.S. Air Force has increased its efforts to explore the demands of warfare in highly contested environments, and is devising and evaluating new approaches to defeating aggression in those environments. One intriguing approach is to employ large numbers of relatively low-cost, attritable—reusable, and ultimately expendable—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to perform a variety of tasks in support of joint force defensive campaigns. This could allow land-based forces to generate and sustain airpower without relying on fixed base infrastructure, such as runways and maintenance facilities. The implications of such an approach for the resiliency of forward-based forces and for their effectiveness in the opening days of a conflict could be profound.

The authors of this report summarize early thinking and analysis about how the U.S. Air Force might employ such a force, and what effects it might achieve in the most-demanding conventional warfighting scenarios.

Key Findings

Large groups of UAVs could be deployed together to create a "targeting mesh" in contested airspace

  • The targeting mesh concept could support the employment of many types of long- and short-range weapons.
  • The mesh has a high degree of redundancy; even a high failure rate of individual observations will not result in an overall failure of the mesh to perform its key function of target identification and location.
  • Air vehicles with these characteristics could fly useful missions from areas up to 1,000 nautical miles from the operating area.
  • Preliminary research suggests that if the cost of the UAVs, including launch, can be kept low enough, it will be possible to pursue a strategy of pure saturation, replenishing the mesh at a rate faster than the enemy can attrit it, until the enemy exhausts its on-hand inventory of interceptor missiles.
  • The mesh is designed to be a closed system; it does not depend on interactions with the larger world. It should not, therefore, be vulnerable to disruptions from outside its isolated universe.

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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