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How To “Fight Tonight” As Complexity Increases – Supervised Autonomy

Aviation Branch Chief / By MG William K. Gayler: Every time someone says that aviation will not be a factor on the future battlefield due to the IADS (integrated air defense systems) threat, they are completely wrong and misinformed. Let’s consider a scenario to illustrate the point.

An Army CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter crew member types a message on his phone to communicate over the engine noise of the helicopter during an air assault exercise on Sept. 14, 2017, at Fort Hood, TX. Army Chinook and AH-64 Apache attack helicopter crews worked with Air Force joint terminal attack controllers to conduct a simulated attack against opposing forces. / U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY SGT DAVID NYE, 301ST PUBLIC AFFAIRS DETACHMENT

Ingress
It’s 0225 hours. For the past 23 minutes, the company of attack helicopters was flying terrain flight altitudes along a carefully planned route, masking them from the enemy while also allowing them to exploit weak spots in the enemy’s IADS umbrella. Only 10 minutes earlier, the trail aircraft had drifted slightly over the crest of a ridge the flight was using to conceal its movement. Immediately, the aircraft threat detection system confirmed a weapons launch and autonomously dispensed hard-kill countermeasures to intercept and destroy the incoming missile. Simultaneously, the aircraft transmitted the launch location to the flight and updated the navigation systems to create an alternate route, to which the flight immediately deviated.
Now back on the primary route, in light rain conditions and nearing the target area, the lead aircraft’s threat detection system senses unexpected millimeter wave energy and quickly develops and transmits a bypass route. As the aircraft starts to turn to the new heading, one of the crew quickly confirms mission graphics and slews the sight systems to the new heading to check the route for enemy and environmental threats… wires! The other crew-member immediately overrides the course change and selects a new route using low ground that parallels the primary route.

Egress
Following a successful engagement, the company breaks contact and heads home in ground fog and light rain which provides additional concealment along the routes. The fused Night Vision / Degraded Visual Environment System, now coupled with internal ASE systems, is switched over to autonomous mode. In this environment it can quickly optimize both the imagery for the crew to fly with and the imagery the ASE system needs to detect threats, off-burden the crew, and allow them to focus on flying. Once out of harm’s way, the crew links the navigation system to the supervised autonomous package, takes a breath, and concentrates on gathering and disseminating mission and battle damage assessment information forward to higher headquarters.

Fight Tonight
If the Army is called to fight tonight, rest assured that Army Aviation will be present supporting ground commanders as a vital component of the combined arms team. As we think about the future of warfare, there is no doubt that Army Aviation remains a critical component of Joint plans and the Army Operating Concept; consistent from the days of AirLand Battle. Likewise, Army Aviation’s advantages and vulnerabilities have remained fairly constant across the eras. But today, there exists a false narrative in some military circles that Army Aviation cannot survive on the modern battlefield due to advanced weapons and air defense threats that potential adversaries now possess. Interestingly enough, the Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine, written in 1982, posited that competitors would field large quantities of high quality weapons systems with range and lethality equal to or exceeding our own. Despite that threat environment, Army Aviation thrived on the past battlefields, just as Army Aviation will successfully operate in current and future threat scenarios, to include anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) defenses. We do acknowledge, however, that it will be a tough fight. Reducing tactical risk in these high threat environments will require changes to how we train our crews to mitigate the threat, as well as how we employ our forces as part of a combined arms or joint operation. The Aviation Enterprise also remains laser-focused on ensuring that we equip our warfighters in both the near term and the future with the right technology to ensure the fight remains an unfair fight, heavily weighted in our favor.

Until ground combat is conducted with fully autonomous capabilities, Army aviators will remain front and center in air/ground operations, sharing the risk and responsibility to fight our nation’s wars. When considering the future battlefield, some suggest that we should fully unman Aviation. In reality, the technology necessary for a fully-autonomous rotary wing platform would require sensors, weapons, and autonomous systems so advanced that the end result would be incredibly expensive with platforms so large as to make it untenable. Perhaps even more significantly, we would lose the critical judgment and intuition of the human element which has allowed us to prevail time and time again in combat. An additional challenge of unmanning aviation comes with the reality that most missions result in dynamic retasking, which becomes problematic with autonomous systems due to the need to be tethered via data link to a control station; a requirement that will certainly be hampered in future electronic warfare (EW)/cyber threat environments. One final and critical obstacle remains – the sacred trust lost with ground commanders and Soldiers, a trust gained over decades, built on personal relationships and shared hardships in combat. This is a trust that must not be broken. As we continue to develop the considerably more capable and complex Future Vertical Lift family of systems, our aim is to field these aircraft as optimally manned platforms. Our approach is to pursue a framework that facilitates the ideal interaction between Soldiers and autonomous systems that will ensure we maintain a disproportionate capability over potential adversaries.

Supervised Autonomy
Historically, as our adversaries become more lethal, Army Aviation acquires more capable and complex aircraft and aircraft systems. Over time, aircrews are asked to complete a high number of tasks, monitor more systems, and interpret more information from many more sensor arrays than at any time in the past. These management responsibilities all detract from their ability to concentrate on essential tasks that are key to mission success; tasks that require education and experience-based judgement, cognitive thinking and analytical reasoning; tasks that have the potential to greatly impact the execution of the commanders’ intent, vision, and guidance. There is no reason to believe that these conditions will subside in the future. In fact, without another path forward, we can assume that they will exacerbate, resulting in aircrews becoming heavily task saturated and less effective in combat.

The objective of Supervised Autonomy is to off-burden certain aviation tasks to the airframe and allow crewmembers to focus on mission essential tasks. As we think about the inherent lethality, complexity, and pace of the future operating environment, it becomes apparent that aircrews will require a greater ability to focus on critical mission-related tasks. Developing a capability that provides the crew with options to select levels of autonomy within the aircraft commensurate with the complexity of the mission makes them more capable, lethal, and better-postured to seize the small, temporal windows of opportunity that will make a difference on future battlefields.

While autonomous automobiles are rapidly gaining ground, the external architecture they use and the sensors they employ to travel from point A to point B in two dimensions are not at all compatible with conducting a multi-ship attack through an IAD environment. Likewise, a 30-ship air assault, delivering light infantry to a contested landing zone would be very difficult to comprehend as a fully autonomous operation. However, in both these scenarios, Supervised Autonomy would enable crews to be off-burdened while also facilitate operations in degraded visual environments, providing significantly enhanced capability and allowing Army Aviation to provide even more options to ground commanders.

It is abundantly clear that Army Aviation and air ground operations will be an essential aspect of future combat. Due to the potential of encountering more lethal adversaries, we must exponentially shorten crew reaction times and take advantage of emerging technologies through supervised autonomous systems that can fly the aircraft, manage and monitor the health of aircraft systems, and enhance the protection and survivability of the aircrew. We must ensure that aircrews retain sufficient time and ability to fulfill their primary role of injecting the human element into the mission and the battle. A scalable and selectable level of Supervised Autonomy will allow us to combine the unbeatable effects of technology and human abilities to ensure that Army Aviation remains an essential element of the future combined arms fight.
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