Future Land Warfare Collection 2021: Artificial Intelligence and Battlefield Aviation
Peering beyond 2040
We are now entering an era where intelligent autonomous weapons and robot warriors are no longer in the realm of science fiction. Battlefield aviation in particular has experienced an accelerated evolution over the past decade. Unmanned systems are increasingly common and more complex. Our aircraft are augmented with fly-by-wire technology and sophisticated high-precision munitions, and real-time information sharing with the ability to stream HD video now seems like yesterday’s technology. The next 20 years will be particularly disruptive for battlefield aviation, and it is extremely difficult to predict the full spectrum of new and emerging technologies set to develop by 2040. If we seek to maintain the advantages of employing battlefield aviation (increased operational tempo, reach and information gathering) through this period of disruption, then we must look to disrupt our own approach to employing this capability now.
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) augmented unmanned aerial systems (UAS), airborne autonomous logistic supply systems (AALSS) and optionally manned aircraft will challenge the way we develop, acquire and employ these systems. These advancements require us to fundamentally shift the paradigm through which we employ battlefield aviation. Now is the time for us to start planning and testing our new approaches.
Current technology allows us to start shifting logistic sustainment tasks like movement of stores, and supplies and potentially even aeromedical evacuation (in low-threat environments) to AALSS—much like Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery service. Shifting of responsibility for these tasks will deliver increased availability of manned aircraft. This enables greater support to manoeuvre operations such as air assaults and quick response tasks, along with the potential to realise efficiencies in ‘just in time’ sustainment models.
Advances in the AI augmentation of UAS by companies such as Shield AI, Skycatch and Neurala have already demonstrated the ability of AI to use a ‘hive mind’. The hive mind operates between systems to quickly build a full picture of multiple systems’ surroundings, and mesh aerial images from multiple sources and sensor types into hyper-accurate 3D imagery in minutes. These methods have already been used to monitor elephant herds and spot poachers miles away.
The military applications of such technologies and their future potential are abundant. The ability to use AI-augmented platforms to supplement or replace perimeter patrols; provide an airborne assassin capability; or provide near real time, fused and hyper-accurate reconnaissance information and even analysis is real. These capabilities are not pipedreams; the technology to start realising these opportunities within our operations exists now.
The advantages of such capabilities for the joint force are self-evident. The ability to generate fused hyper-accurate reconnaissance information from a swarm of AI-augmented small UAS will change the way the joint force plans and conducts reconnaissance for an entry operation. Such a capability would significantly increase the ability to ‘pull’ reconnaissance information to the joint force and no doubt decrease the planning time frames for such operations. Furthermore, the ability to swarm low-cost and expendable airborne sensors within engagement areas will present multiple dilemmas for adversaries, forcing them to weigh the cost of unmasking their positions or intentions against the possibility of detection.
Looking further ahead to 2040, the emergence of optionally manned aircraft and ‘loyal wingman’ like capabilities presents particularly interesting challenges and opportunities for the future employment of battlefield aviation.
These developments provide an obvious force multiplier, potentially doubling the number of aircraft available to support almost any mission. In terms of optionally manned aircraft, the biggest advantage that this emerging capability is likely to offer is a significant increase in flying hours available to support land forces. When aircrew return from complex combat missions, they can begin planning the next complex mission while the aircraft is dispatched again, unmanned, to carry out a routine task.
Realising the Future
Until the ability of AI is proven, and trusted algorithms for the employment of lethal effects are developed, the need for a human ‘on the loop’ will remain. In terms of battlefield aviation we should expect that the first iterations of this emerging capability will involve manned aircraft flying teamed with unmanned aircraft. The ability for the human pilot to choose to exercise level three or four interoperability to variously control the UAS’s sensors, flight path and, ultimately, weapons to deliver lethal effects will almost certainly remain a requirement for the near future. Human-machine teams such as these would be ideally suited to armed reconnaissance, strike, interdiction, escort, sustainment and logistics, and potentially close air support type missions.
To be prepared for the major paradigm shift these capabilities will lead to, a number of elements of our current approach to the employment of battlefield aviation will need to change. Despite the increasing proliferation of advanced unmanned systems, we can expect no significant decrease in the number of missions demanded of manned aircraft by 2040. This is based on the expectation that manned aircraft will remain the priority method for troop lift until 2040 and that we will continue to require a human ‘on the loop’ for lethal fires until 2030. Instead, key changes will include:
- A shift in the nature of manned missions to the complex and time-sensitive end of the spectrum
- Increasing use of unmanned systems as force multipliers and to complete routine tasks
- Increasing availability of aircraft to regularly support complex land and amphibious manoeuvre missions
- More congestion in the battlefield airspace, requiring robust traffic control measures and decentralised deconfliction of aircraft
- An associated exponential increase in battlefield aviation sustainment and maintenance requirements to support the increase in both the number of aerial systems and the number of flying hours.
Starting now, we must look to 2040 and begin the groundwork to change our doctrine and operating concepts in order to take advantage of the emerging opportunities in battlefield aviation. UAS and AI technology beyond 2040 is likely to be key in empowering us to shape the deep battle space, mass airborne fires over friendly forces, optimise just-in-time sustainment models and quickly develop and sustain a superior level of situational awareness.
Procuring small numbers of emerging exemplar systems now, such as those discussed above, will provide an early opportunity to learn by doing. Additionally, the deliberate employment of battlefield aviation forwards, during exercises—to shape the deep battle and build situational awareness—will enable our forces to learn how they can effectively employ future unmanned capabilities. Our major land and joint exercises provide sandboxes where we can experiment with these emerging technologies, tactics and techniques to uncover asymmetric means to employ future capabilities. The notion of using exercises and training to experiment with new tactics, techniques and procedures is not novel. In 1914, Colonel John Monash published a guide to the officers of the 4th Infantry Brigade stating:
Knowledge can only be gained from experience … If, during training or manoeuvres, an idea occurs of performing some duty in a manner differing from that which has been the custom of the battalion, try it …
Creating future ready doctrine for the employment of emerging technology in battlefield aviation will be a time-consuming process rooted in lessons learned. The single most practical thing we can do right now is to prepare our aircrew and joint forces for the challenges of operating manned and unmanned aircraft simultaneously. Procuring capabilities now—such as air launched effects and AALSS—should be a high priority if we intend to quickly develop and build the requisite knowledge within our fighting force to be masters of these capabilities in 2040 and beyond. We need to foster a culture of employing battlefield aviation forwards into our exercise serials now, so our forces can get familiar with employing this capability forwards to shape their area of operations. Using battlefield aviation to shape the deep battle and build situational awareness, while ensuring that platforms remain available to support the close fight and force sustainment, must be founding elements of our future doctrine if we are to realise emerging and decisive opportunities in this space. We must start learning now.
 S Daley, 2019, ‘Fighting Fires and Saving Elephants: How 12 Companies Are Using AI Drone to Solve Big Problems’, Built In, 10 March 2019, at https://builtin.com/artificial-intelligence/drones-ai-companies
 ‘Loyal Wingman’ is the name given to Boeing Defence Australia’s Airpower Teaming System, which consists of semi-autonomous armed unmanned fighter-like aircraft which are designed to escort manned fighters.
 M Davis, 2019, ‘“Loyal Wingman” to Take Australia’s Airpower into the Next Era’, The Strategist (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), 7 March 2019, at https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/loyal-wingman-to-take-australias-airpower-into-the-next-era/
 SJ Freedberg Jr, 2016, ‘“Optionally Piloted” Aircraft Studied for Future Vertical Lift’, Breaking Defense, 23 September 2016, at https://breakingdefense.com/2016/09/optionally-piloted-aircraft-studied-for-future-vertical-lift/
 Davis, 2019.
 V Insinna, 2017, ‘Army’s Helicopter-Drone Teams to Get Capability Boost in 2019’, Defense News, 8 October 2017, at https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/ausa/2017/10/09/armys-helicopter-drone-teams-to-get-capability-boost-in-2019/
 D Foster, 2020, ‘One Hundred Hints for Company Officers’, The Cove, 23 October, at https://cove.army.gov.au/article/one-hundred-hints-company-officers
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
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