Review of ONR's Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles Program

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Joint Vision 20101 addresses the need for achieving military dominance through the application of new operational concepts. For the Department of the Navy, future operational concepts will hinge on a continuance of forward yet unobtrusive presence and the capability to influence events ashore as required. This capability will be enabled by the development and insertion into the forces of new technologies for providing command, control, and surveillance; battlespace dominance; power projection; and force sustainment. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have recently proven to be valuable operational platforms for providing tactical intelligence by surveillance of the battlefield. To support naval force objectives, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has established a research program within the Strike Technology Division (Code 351) of the Naval Expeditionary Warfare Science and Technology Department aimed at expanding the operational capabilities of UAVs to include not only surveillance and reconnaissance, but strike and logistics missions as well. This new class of autonomous vehicles, known as uninhabited combat air vehicles (UCAVs), is foreseen as being intelligent, recoverable, and highly maneuverable in support of future naval operations.

Review of ONR'S Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicles Program evaluates ONR's UCAV technology activities, including its vision documents and its science and technology roadmap (in areas of vehicle dynamics, communications, sensors, and autonomous agents) against criteria that would be selected by the committee, such as the relevance for meeting future naval priorities, the cost and time scale for its utilization, duplication of effort, and scientific and technical quality.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780309069779
  • Publisher: National Academies Press
  • Publication date: 7/21/2000
  • Pages: 58
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 10.80 (h) x 0.30 (d)

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Copyright © 2000 National Academy of Sciences
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-309-06977-9

Chapter One

Executive Summary

At the request of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the National Research Council established a committee, under the auspices of the Naval Studies Board, to review ONR's uninhabited combat air vehicles (UCAVs) program. The primary program review was held December 13-15, 1999. For program context, a series of briefings by other Department of Defense and Department of the Navy organizations involved in related unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and UCAV activities were presented to the committee on January 18-19, 2000. This report is based on the information presented at those meetings and on the committee members' accumulated experience and expertise in military operations, systems, and technology. The Navy UCAV picture is changing rapidly, and this report necessarily reflects the status at the time the information was presented.


The ONR UCAV program was started recently within ONR's Strike Technology Division (Code 351) of the Naval Expeditionary Warfare Science and Technology Department to address the future technology requirements of all (UAVs and UCAVs) naval unmanned aerial vehicles in thebattlespace. Working with selected contractors, ONR 351 created an ambitious and far-reaching vision of the role of cooperating UAVs in naval warfare, very much in the spirit of network-centric operations. Unmanned aerial vehicle missions and candidate UAV flight configurations were hypothesized and technology requirements derived and passed down to the contractor technology teams, which surveyed and identified the relevant critical technologies. Based on the maturity of these technologies as assessed by their experts, the teams created technology roadmaps, which provide descriptions and timetables for recommended science and technology (S&T)-i.e., basic research (6.1) and applied research (6.2)-investments to enable the vision to be realized. A systematic top-down process was used throughout.

The quality and credentials of the contractors enlisted were outstanding. All were known experts in their fields: Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems for mission analysis; Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems and Bell Helicopter Textron for air vehicles and avionics; GTE Laboratories and Bolt, Beranek, and Newman Technologies for communications and networking; the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for sensors; and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory for intelligent autonomy and autonomous systems.

The 6.2 funding available was limited to about $150,000 per contract. ONR 351's investment strategy was a low-budget effort and suffered somewhat as a result. As such, it remains a work in progress, with much of the work apparently needing to be completed.

ONR 351's approach to the generation of the vision was quite different from what might be expected from an R&D organization. Rather than extrapolating from the known missions and capabilities of existing or currently planned UAVs (i.e., bottom-up), ONR took a giant leap and envisioned a battlespace of the future filled with UAVs of all kinds, intercommunicating and operating cooperatively in teams, each vehicle completely autonomous and having no real-time interaction with humans. In this vision of the far future, humans would assign missions, but all the rest of the details of UAV flight-target location and engagement, team coordination, reaction to unexpected events, mission replanning on the fly, and so forth-would be handled entirely by onboard intelligent agent software. While cooperating sensors and weapons are characteristic of network-centric operations, it is generally assumed that real-time interaction with human decision makers is an integral part of the concept. The Office of Naval Research's UAV/UCAV vision takes this another step into the future.

While it is undeniable that autonomy will be increasingly used in military operations as the exponential growth of the enabling computer and software technologies continues, the total autonomy of lethal platforms is a difficult concept to accept today. This ambitious UAV/UCAV vision certainly points in the right direction and is appropriate for an ONR 6.1/6.2 program. However, Code 351, because it omits explicit reference to the inevitable evolution through intermediate levels of real-time, man-machine synergy as the technology is proven capable and trustworthy, does itself a disservice by allowing its vision to appear unrealistic.

To flesh out this vision of the future, ONR, with its principal investigators, postulated and analyzed a number of likely UAV/UCAV missions and identified UCAV system concept design drivers. Only fairly high-performance missions were considered. Based on questions by the committee regarding the validity of certain operational assumptions, it was found that ONR had acted on its own in this matter. Although ONR and its contractors certainly had qualifications in this arena, many relevant Department of the Navy stakeholders (i.e., the Offices of the Chief of Naval Operations for Expeditionary Warfare (N85) and for Air Warfare (N88), the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), the Naval UAV Executive Steering Group (ESG), and the Marines-the Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation and the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC)) had not yet been involved.

The missions divided fairly naturally into three tiers of performance characterized by the general altitude of the mission, and corresponding classes of UAV were postulated: high, medium, and low. Candidate designs for each class of UAV were created, with examples ranging from a gently maneuvering and long-endurance, high-altitude UAV for collection of situation awareness data to an agile (11-g), short-mission-duration, on-the-deck strike UCAV. Most concepts, including fixed-wing designs, embodied vertical takeoff capabilities suitable for naval shipboard deployment.

From an assessment of this fleshed-out vision, four broad critical technologies were identified: vehicle technology; secure communications and dynamic networking; sensors and sensor systems; and autonomy. Autonomy overlaps the other three areas because each area must exhibit considerable capacity for adaptive behavior and have a control scheme that implements the system's autonomy rules. However, the committee believed that for the future of UAVs in network-centric operations, these four are indeed the broad critical technologies to be addressed, however much autonomy is postulated in the long-term vision.

The individual technology teams then examined each of the critical technologies, specifying the needed capabilities, generally in the form of a useful missions-capability matrix. The committee found no serious deficiencies in the missions-capability matrices. However, the resulting technology development roadmaps fell short of expectations. Clearly unfinished, the roadmaps were general and of very low time resolution (i.e., 5-year intervals were depicted). Lacking details, in their present form they are not yet useful for selecting specific near-term 6.2 projects.

For two of the technologies, vehicles and sensors, the committee concluded that because the missions would be limited to high-performance missions, the resulting vehicles and sensors strongly resembled those carried on manned aircraft, and so the existing or planned capabilities under development for manned aircraft probably would be sufficient for UAV/UCAV and no new capabilities needed to be developed. This is not true for the vehicle avionics or for the sensor information extraction and fusion implied by the vision, but these topics fall largely under communication/networking and autonomy, which were judged to need additional UAV/UCAV attention. The committee believes that while commercial interest in autonomy (e.g., autonomous agents) may dominate many aspects of that technology and the Department of the Navy need only apply the results, the needs of network-centric dynamic networking will not be of great commercial interest, and basic Navy Department- and DOD-sponsored research and development (R&D) will be required.


In spite of the far-reaching nature of its vision and the excellence of its technical team, this small ONR initiative risks being overwhelmed by a number of almost simultaneous and much-better-funded UAV-related efforts within the Department of the Navy, particularly if it chooses-unwisely-to continue alone. The competition for resources comes from, among other things, a procurement for a vertical takeoff and landing tactical UAV (VTUAV) by the Program Executive Office for Cruise Missiles and UAVs (PEO (CU)), awarded in February 2000; a recent Naval Air Systems Command multirole endurance (MRE) UAV broad agency announcement (BAA); the UCAV-N Program, a collaborative DARPA/Navy UCAV advanced technology demonstration (ATD) closely related to a similar DARPA/USAF program; and the newly established Department of the Navy future naval capability (FNC) thrusts, many of which bear directly on UAV/UCAV issues, particularly the FNCs focused on time-critical strike and autonomous operations. If the program is not fully integrated appropriately into the Navy Department community, it will not survive.

In general, the committee had several concerns that bear directly on the ONR program:

The Department of the Navy needs to better define leadership for setting requirements for UAVs. The current leadership offered by the responsible Navy Department organizations seems to move slowly, envisions only relatively near-term scenarios, and is currently supporting independent multiple thrusts, as yet uncoordinated, without a clear unifying focus on the full future potential of UAVs. The ONR Code 351 program is exploratory in anticipation of requirements, as is appropriate for 6.1/6.2.

A Department of the Navy UAV/UCAV master plan is needed that is more comprehensive than the current Naval UAV Executive Steering Group plan and that includes S&T components as well as system concepts that explicitly acknowledge the existence of other UAV/UCAV plans and programs outside the Department of the Navy.

UAV S&T coordination across the DOD community is inadequate. In addition, a DOD S&T roadmap for UAVs is needed, perhaps as a supplement to the current OSD UAV master plan. Stimulated by the NATO action in Kosovo and targeted for completion in June 2000, the current OSD plan addresses DOD-wide timing and funding schedules for the accelerated fielding of UAVs; however, it does not explicitly address S&T issues.

Software development and cost are increasingly critical for all complex computer-based systems. While everybody uses software, few, if any, software organizations are responsible (or funded) for developing the much-needed software tools and techniques.

There seem to be no systematic approaches or tools available for partitioning functions between machines (e.g., platforms, flights, C4ISR nodes) and humans or for assessing the military benefits of autonomy. The mathematical and engineering sciences on which autonomous system design and evaluation will be based need development. Autonomy is key, and the military will have to invest to exploit and extend what the private sector will develop.

Network-centric compatibility must be an integral part of any Department of the Navy UAV/UCAV future vision. Requirements must be developed in the context of a true system-of-systems architecture, with freedom to adjust the structure of the rest of the force to take advantage of UAV/UCAV contributions.

Regarding the assessment requested in the terms of reference, the committee notes the following:

Relevance for future naval priorities-There appears to have been no specific guidance regarding naval priorities. The missions used in forming ONR's future vision for UCAVs seem to be reasonably in line with operations that have occurred recently and that are generally expected in the future. This is not an unusual situation for 6.1/6.2 work.

Cost and time scale-The UAVs projected were at the high-performance, high-cost end of the spectrum: the vision is very futuristic. Not enough information is available to address cost and time issues in any detail. The software needed for intelligent, reliable autonomy will probably be expensive.

Duplication-While many of the technologies involved will undoubtedly experience some duplication in the rather independently evolving UAV/UCAV programs, the aggressive ONR vision of cooperative autonomy appears to be unique in pushing the envelope, which is appropriate for a 6.1/6.2 effort.

Quality-The performance credentials and briefings were of high quality. However, the committee noted that the state of the art for autonomous systems is more advanced that that in the ONR Code 351 program.


Although the committee makes many specific recommendations for improvement throughout the report, its most significant recommendations are summarized below.

With respect to the ONR 351 UCAV program, the committee recommends that ONR should do as follows:

Strive to become fully integrated within the Department of the Navy UAV/UCAV community. The relevant programs-e.g., the ONR 351 UCAV program, the DARPA/Navy UCAV-N, the PEO (CU) VTUAV procurement, the NAVAIR MRE UAV BAA, and the Department of the Navy FNCs-are now largely independent. They should be coordinated according to an agreed-on focus. The Navy should also take advantage of the wide range of results obtained by other Services.

Complete the vision and make it more realistic by recognizing the limited applicability of total (level 5) autonomy, adding an outline of and a timetable for the evolution of human-machine partnerships through a series of intermediate visions. The mathematical and engineering sciences on which autonomous system design and evaluation will be based should be developed.

Engage other appropriate Department of the Navy UAV stakeholders and reexamine their missions to ensure that the UAV/UCAV vision responds to the needs of the whole naval community.

Complete the technology roadmaps after this reexamination.

For the four critical technologies of the ONR 351 UCAV program, the committee recommends the following:

Vehicle technology will evolve without being given special emphasis by an ONR S&T program. Accordingly, ONR should plan to invest only in R&D pertaining to (1) missions that are unique to the Navy, such as landing on a ship or antisubmarine-warfare-related operations support, and (2) overall affordability.

For communications and networking, the commercial sector will not address all issues. ONR should focus on secure communications and dynamic networking directly, as it is doing, while continuing to exploit commercial development whenever possible.

Sensors and sensor systems hardware will evolve without special attention from an ONR S&T program. ONR should focus on software and algorithms for information extraction and fusion rather than on hardware issues. A much-better-focused program of enabling technology development and demonstration than seems to have been put in place so far is essential if limited funds are to produce significant results.

For autonomy, the commercial sector will not address all of the Navy's needs. ONR 6.1/6.2 investments are warranted in several important areas-image understanding, human-machine interaction, multientity control, and metaheuristics, among others-as well as in a systematic examination of the scientific and engineering principles upon which autonomous operations are based. Careful coordination with other R&D programs of the Navy and the other Services is recommended. ONR should leverage commercial software to emphasize naval-unique applications, demonstrations, and exercises, and it should encourage the formation of a community focused on autonomy that facilitates communication and joint development across industry, government, and academia by means of Navy-sponsored symposia and the like. Finally, the committee recommends that ONR should specifically fund S&T efforts aimed at identifying and publishing best practices for the design, development, and evaluation of complex affordable autonomous military systems.


Excerpted from REVIEW OF ONR'S UNINHABITED COMBAT AIR VEHICLES PROGRAM Copyright © 2000 by National Academy of Sciences. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY....................1
1 STUDY OVERVIEW....................6
Scope of and Approach to the Assessment....................7
Favorable Aspects of the ONR 351 Approach (6.2)....................7
Areas of Concern....................8
2 ASSESSMENT OF THE ONR 351 UAV/UCAV PROGRAM....................11
The ONR Vision....................13
Critical Technologies....................16
Proposed UAV/UCAV Demonstrations....................25
Summary Recommendations....................25
Program Issues....................27
Technology Issues....................32
General Concerns....................35
APPENDIXES A Committee Biographies....................39
B Terms of Reference....................43
C Acronyms and Abbreviations....................44

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