DARPA Wants To Build Flying Aircraft Carriers – A Mother-Ship For Launching Drones; But, The Future Of Warfare Could Well Be The Small, Many, And Smart, vs. The Few And; Exquisite?

DARPA Wants To Build Flying Aircraft Carriers – A Mother-Ship For Launching Drones; But, The Future Of Warfare Could Well Be The Small, Many, And Smart, vs. The Few And; Exquisite?


Mark Strauss, writing on the iO9, begins “providing yet further evidence that we’re living in the age of the Avengers universe, the U.S. military’s futuristic tech agency [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA], has announced it is soliciting ideas for converting existing large aircraft into flying platforms for launching drones.” “The idea,” he writes, “is similar to another DARPA initiative, the controversial Hydra Project, — which aims to develop [and deploy] a network of undersea mother-ships that would be capable of deploying both underwater and aerial drones.”

“The new project, called Distributed Airborne Capabilities, also builds on current DARPA research, which aims to create drone squadrons that will have the ability to behave collaboratively [without human intervention], during combat and [intelligence] surveillance missions,” Mr. Strauss wrote. “The ultimate goal,” he says, “is to simplify and diversify. Rather than trying to cram all sorts of hardware into a single, large, expensive drone, DARPA envisions several smaller, unpiloted aircraft, each carrying specialized equipment [and perhaps even humans, etc.], — working in tandem with one another.”

“The downside of this approach — which DARPA acknowledges in this new solicitation — is that smaller drones have limited range…compared to their larger, more well-endowed cousins,” wrote Mr. Strauss. But, a “large aircraft that, with minimal modification, could launch and recover multiple, small unmanned systems from standoff distance,” outside the combat zone, could provide DARPA with a cost-effective capability — to effectively extend the range of its drone squadrons.”

“The candidate aircraft,” Mr. Strauss says, include “the B-52, the B-1, and the C-130. If you have any ideas on how to pull this off — you have until November 26, 2014 to submit your proposal,” Mr. Stauss concluded.

The Future of Warfare: Small, Many, Smart vs. Few And; Exquisite?

Certainly an interesting proposal/idea; and, the opposite of what some military futurists foresee in the decade ahead. T.X. Hamres, who is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University; and, someone I have worked with in the past, had a thought-provoking, July 16, 2014 article in “Analysis And Commentary,’ whereby he postulated that “dramatic improvements in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, biology, and nano-materials are changing the cost/effectiveness calculation in favor of the “many and simple” against the “few and complex.” The convergence of these technologies and the steady decrease in costs even as capabilities increase is rapidly expanding the destructive power, range, and precision of weapons that soon will be both widely available and relatively cheap,” he argued. Below, are what I considered key excerpts from his very thought-provoking article.


“The last decade has made the global public familiar with expensive high end drones. Yet, perhaps the most interesting developments have taken place at the low cost end of the spectrum. In 1998, an industry/university consortium flew a composite drone from Newfoundland to Scotland on two gallons of fuel. By 2003, a hobbyist launched a GPS-guided model airplane/drone that flew autonomously from Newfoundland to precisely the right landing point in Ireland. Built of balsa and plywood with a tiny gasoline engine that burned less than one gallon of fuel in the 26 hour flight, it was cheap enough that the hobbyist built 23 to ensure he could be the first hobbyist to fly across the Atlantic. He made it with the third launch. In the intervening 12 years, governments, hobbyists, and businesses have steadily increased the range and capability of these platforms.”

“Hobbyists and businesses have made use of the rapid technological convergence to decrease the cost of long-range, autonomous systems at least an order of magnitude,” Mr. Hamres argues. “Today they are routinely flying smart systems with intercontinental range — they lack only a payload to be a precision weapons system. Their composite construction and very low energy usage mean they will be very difficult to detect.”


“While most of the public focus has been on high-end drones conducting anti-terror strikes, the Chinese have fielded the Harpy Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV),” Mr. Hamres writes. “Initially developed in the 1990s by Israel as an anti-radar system, the Chinese version has a range of 500 km and a 32kg warhead with multiple types of seeker heads. One Chinese configuration has 18 Harpies in box launchers mounted on a single truck bed (other configurations use 6 launchers per truck). Essentially, these are expendable drones capable of saturating defensive systems. Both China and Israel have displayed these weapons at trade shows in an effort to sell them to other nations. The system is currently operational with the Turkish, Korean, Chinese, and Indian Armies. Today, the Israeli version has an electro-optical sensor to attack non-emitting targets and an extended range of 1000 km. One can assume China has made similar improvements to its systems. This system represents a first step toward inexpensive swarms. Yet Harpy class UAVs, while expendable, are still relatively expensive and thus major deployments of weapons of this class require a well-funded state military.”

“The primary driver of how many systems are purchased is cost. But additive manufacturing is driving down the cost of many manufactured products. Today researchers in England have prototyped a printed drone that will cost roughly $9 a copy. And additive manufacturing is not only low end products.”

“Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of military space for Lockheed, told Reuters, “In the next decade, we will completely change the way a satellite is designed and built. We will print a satellite,”
Valerio suggests such a satellite will cost 40% less than current models. These trends indicate that dramatic cost decreases will be the norm for these widely used and increasingly capable commercial drones.”

“We don’t have to wait for additive manufacturing, either. The U.S. Navy has announced it will repurpose the commercially produced Slocum Glider – a five foot long, autonomous underwater research vehicle. The glider can patrol for weeks following initial instructions, surfacing periodically to report and receive new instructions. Such drones are being used globally and cost about $100,000. Clearly such drones can be modified into long-range autonomous torpedoes or mine delivery vehicles. For the cost of one Virginia class submarine, a nation could purchase 17,500 such drones. Additive manufacturing can and likely will reduce the cost of these systems even more. And the skills needed to build and employ a glider are orders of magnitude less than those needed for a nuclear sub.”

“Today’s inexpensive drone systems,” Mr. Hamres contends, “mean states and even non-state actors can afford large numbers of lethal air, sea, and ground drones. Within the decade, U.S. forces should expect to be attacked by these weapons on every combat deployment.”

Don’t Look Back, They Are Not Behind Us

“Unfortunately for the West,” Mr. Hamres warns, “autonomous drones will initially favor the less technologically advanced actor because their targeting problem is simpler. For instance, a non-state actor may not own armored vehicles or aircraft, so its autonomous drones only have to find and attack any armored vehicle or parked aircraft. They do not have to discriminate but simply fly a pre-programmed route to a suspected target area and identify the target. Target areas for many locations in the world–to include most airfield flight lines–can be determined using Google Maps. Cheap optical recognition hardware and software that provides rough target discrimination is also becoming widely available. If the software of a farmer’s autonomous drone can point and shoot a camera, it can point and shoot an explosive device.”

“Clearly, these commercial products have demonstrated the ability of autonomous drones to reach a target area, but what weapon could it use? Commercially available quadcopters carry the 3 ounce GoPro camera and are achieving flight times of over 30 minutes. Against the thin skin of an aircraft, a simple point detonating 3 ounce warhead is sufficient. Against armor, the drone designer may choose the heavier and more complex explosively formed penetrator. This will obviously require larger drones but will also provide standoff distance. In 2009, the U.S. Army told CNN that such weapons can penetrate armor from 100 meters. This potential marriage of proven, cheap technology represents a direct threat to a wide range of potential targets,” Mr. Hamres noted.

“The addition of cheap, persistent air and space based surveillance will provide the information necessary to use these cheap drones. Sky Box Imaging, which was recently purchased by Google, is deploying CubeSats. Their goal is to sell half-meter resolution imagery with a revisit rate of several times a day – to include interpretation of what the buyer is seeing. A buyer could track port, airfield, road, and rail system activity in near real time.”

“While the cheapest of these systems can carry only small payloads, the rapidly developing field of nano-energetics or nano-explosives will dramatically increase their destructive power. As early as 2002, nano-explosives demonstrated an explosive power twice that of conventional explosives. Since research in this field is classified, proprietary, or both, it is difficult to say what, if any progress has been made since that point. But even if double the power is as good as it gets, a 100% increase in destructive power for the same size weapon is a massive increase.

Western forces should not assume they will have the technological edge when deploying to a conflict zone. The higher standards for target discrimination will inhibit their fielding of autonomous lethal but cheap drones. In this field, they should expect to the non-state or less ethical state to be the first to field such systems. Implications.”

“The convergence of technologies and techniques is already producing small, smart, cheap, and long-range drones capable of carrying significant payloads. Fuel gels and nano-explosives will increase the range and lethality of these commercially available systems. Additive manufacturing will dramatically reduce the costs. The Pentagon needs to rethink the exquisitely capable but extremely expensive weapons procurement programs it is pursuing. While these systems were a major factor in the tactical successes of the last 24 years, the United States needs to think hard about the shift from exquisite and very few to cheap and very many.”

“For instance, rather than insisting on building the next generation bomber, we need to examine how best to execute the mission of effective long range strike. Even if one accepts the mantra that “we must be able to hold at risk what they value,” this does not mean the United States needs a new bomber. We need to consider other approaches. For instance, what other strike platforms could we purchase for the same investment as the proposed Long Range Strike Bomber?”

“In 2012, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norman Schwartz projected a cost of $550 million per Long Range Strike Bomber. Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s Chief Weapons tester from 2001 until his retirement in 2005, is skeptical. He thinks $2 billion per aircraft is a more accurate estimate. Christie’s estimate aligns closely with the experience of building the B-2 bomber. A 1997 report from the Government Accountability Office showed that while initial estimates for the B-2 were $456 million in 1997 dollars, the actual cost was $2.1 billion per aircraft. While not usually included in the estimates the extremely high operating costs of stealth aircraft must also be included. According to U.S. Air Force data, the B-2 costs $164,000 per flight hour to operate. We should plan for similar or higher operating costs for the Long Range Strike Bomber.”

“The 2012 Pentagon budget shows Tactical Tomahawks costs $1.1 million per Tactical Tomahawk for a buy of only 196 missiles. This missile boasts a 1,000 pound warhead and “features a two-way satellite data link that allows the controller to switch target during flight to pre-programmed alternate targets or redirect it to a new target.”

According to the Naval Air Systems Command, the older Tomahawk Land Attack Missile cost $607,000 in FY-1999 dollars. Using the U.S. Navy Deflator figure for Procurement, the Tomahawk currently costs $785,000. Due to advances in additive manufacturing production techniques, the cost should drop to $470,000. This year, the University of Southern California’s School of Engineering revealed a method for 3D-printing multi-material objects in minutes instead of hours.”

“Even if you think we will get the next generation bomber for less than the current B-2, a single Long Range Strike Bomber would pay for 4000 Tomahawks. Given the historical record of bomber costs, it is more reasonable to assume that we will pay at least half again as much per aircraft for the new generation. Thus we could buy 6000 Tomahawks for the price of a single next generation Long Range Strike Bomber. And of course, every month the bomber fleet will consume tens of millions in operating costs – which otherwise could purchase even more Tomahawks. For the price of a single bomber, we could provide a full load out for all Tomahawk capable ships in the fleet.”

“Advances in additive manufacturing, composite materials, energy densities in gel fuels, and nano-explosives indicate we will be able to build longer range, more powerful, and stealthier cruise missiles for much less money than the loitering Tomahawk.”

Historical Precedents

“Remembering the history of another era of rapid, broad technological change might help DoD decision makers put the problem in perspective. In the early 1900s, navies were making very rapid technological gains in metallurgy, ammunition, explosives, engines, and communications. The 1906 launch of Dreadnought ushered in the battleship era, and within a decade, capital ships were powered by turbines, had main batteries of 14-inch guns, rudimentary wireless, and vastly improved armor. By the beginning of WWI, battleships were considered the decisive weapon for fleet engagements, and the size of the battleship fleet was seen as a reasonable proxy for a navy’s strength. The war’s single major fleet action, the Battle of Jutland, seemed to prove these ideas correct.”

“Accordingly, during the interwar period, battleships received the lion’s share of naval investments. Displacement more than doubled, from the 27,000 tons of the pre-WWI New York class to the 48,500 tons of the Iowa class. The main batteries shifted from 14-inch to 16-inch guns, secondary batteries were improved, radar was installed, speed increased from 21 to 33 knots, cruising range more than doubled, and armor improved. Yet none of these advances changed the fundamental capabilities of the battleship. This is typical of mature technology, for which it costs much more to improve performance than it does for immature technology.”

“In contrast, naval aviation was in its infancy in 1914. Aircraft were slow, short-legged, lightly armed, and primarily used for reconnaissance. Air combat was primitive; attempts to bring down opposing aircraft included pistols, rifles, and even a grappling hook. After the war, aviation remained an auxiliary and was funded accordingly. While the Navy built 18 new battleships during the interwar period, it built only eight carriers, a total that includes the conversion of a collier (USS Langley) and two cruisers. And yet by 1941, carrier aviation had developed to the point that it dominated the naval battles of WWII.”

“The Navy’s failure to understand where genuine technological advantage lay carried real opportunity costs. In the late 1930s, the Navy spent heavily on fast battleships, eventually commissioning 10 and starting construction on two more. These ships turned out to serve primarily as very expensive anti-aircraft escorts for the fleet carriers. (Most naval shore bombardment was done by older battleships that dated to the 1920s.) One has to wonder: if the Navy had dedicated even half of the battleship funds spent in the 1930s to naval aviation, how different would the opening year of the war been?”


“Investment in highly capable and expensive new weapons systems is predicated on specific assumptions about the future. Unfortunately, it is a truism that one can never predict the future with certainty. Thus a hedging approach is more functional than a predictive approach. With the widespread commercial shift to small, many, and smart systems as a substitute for a few, exquisite systems, it is time for the United States to rethink its equipment procurement approach.”

“The critical military functions will remain – but how we accomplish them will change. Rather than investing everything in a single type of fighter or a long range bomber, it makes more sense to limit our buys of these systems and augment them with systems that conform to small, smart, and many. For missions like reconnaissance, strike, jamming, communications relay, and others, the United States needs to explore relatively cheap and even disposable systems.”

“Obviously, this will not be a rapid shift. For instance, the United States is already heavily committed to the F-35. But rather than buying over 2400 F-35s and continuing to build Ford carriers, we should examine limiting the buy of F-35 to six or seven hundred. These aircraft, along with the current inventory of approximately 180 F-22s, this will provide sufficient numbers of aircraft for high end penetrating missions. For other missions, existing and upgraded F-15, F-16, and F-18s can carry the load – particularly when augmented with large numbers of inexpensive penetrating platforms. Rather than expensive manned Wild Weasel SAM suppression platforms, we could employ cheaper but more capable versions of the Harpy 2. Cheap platforms even reduce the need for air-to-air capability. Rather than destroying the aircraft in the air, swarms of cheap penetrators would strike at an opponent’s base.”

“In a similar ways, our current inventory of carriers will ensure that we have these ships available until the 2040s or later. We can continue to build Fords to ensure that carriers operate until the Navy’s goal of 2100 – or we can seriously investigate how the convergence of robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, biology, and nano-materials is going to change the character of future conflict. Rather than decades-long, monolithic procurement programs, we can return to the process we used early in the days of aviation. This was a time of wide commercial innovation in a variety of fields – internal combustion engines, metallurgy, design, radios, ordnance. It was impossible to predict which designs would work best. The industry used a model of build, test, improve, test, improve; only afterward did the Navy or War Department actually field the systems. The cost was low enough that they could abandon an aircraft if it was not working. Despite investing a fraction of the money it spent on battleships during the interwar period, the Navy developed the carrier aviation team that dominated WWII naval warfare.”

“It is critical that we examine the few exquisite systems we are planning to buy – aircraft, ships, armor — and see if their missions could be accomplished by many, smart, cheap platforms. Given the inherent political advantages of large, complex systems, this will be a difficult step. The F-35 is a poster child for the difficultly of reconsidering a program of record. Built in 45 states at a cost of $399 B for 2,443 aircraft and with expected lifetime operating cost of $1 trillion, the F-35 has powerful Congressional support. Further, U.S. doctrine and powerful service constituencies heavily favor these exquisite systems. This is natural since doctrine and preferences are usually based on experience and current U.S. experience is based on exquisite systems. These two powerful factors will make it difficult to dispassionately examine other options. However, we must do so soon. Our experience with the F-35 shows that the decision to pursue a different path needs to be taken before the new system gains a powerful constituency that insists it be built regardless of its capability.”

Future Warfare:

And, if you believe David Kilcullen, author of “Out Of The Mountains: The Coming Age Of The Urban Guerrilla,’ the future of warfare is more likely than not, is moving “out of the mountains: away from the remote, rural guerrilla warfare of Afghanistan; and, into the marginalized slums and complex security threats of the world’s coastal cities, where almost 75 per cent of us will be living by mid-century. Hurst papers wrote, “scrutinizing major environmental trends – population growth, coastal urbanization – and increasing digital connectivity, he projects a future of feral cities, urban systems under stress, and increasing overlaps between crime and war, internal and external threats, and the real and virtual worlds.

“The greater danger for the future may not be failed states,” Mr. Kilcullen writes, “but the possibility of failed mega cities. When states fail to provide protection and other basic services within a mega city an ungoverned region may rise within the mega city. Increasing urbanization worldwide, combined with growing attention to illicit actors in remote areas, suggests that “hiding in plain sight” in urban and suburban areas or rural villages will be a strategy that illicit actors are likely to increasingly follow. Many cities, even in Western liberal democracies, have entire housing projects, neighborhoods, or slums that are known to be controlled by drug traffickers or other illicit actors and are “no go” areas for police; many favilas, urban slums, shanty towns, refugee camps, and squatters’ villages outside of major cities lack police protection or government oversight.”

“Kilcullen’s overall thesis is a compelling one,” wrote Geoff Manaugh, writing in his article, “What Happens When Cities Fall Apart,” summarizes Kilcullen’s thesis: that future warfare is likely going to be far removed from the “remote desert battlegrounds and impenetrable mountain tribal areas; and, instead, in the urban, densely populated, mega-cities of the 2030s-2050s.

If he and Mr. Hamres are right — then maybe the mega-drone mother-ship that DARPA envisions — isn’t the best avenue of approach for what could work — militarily — in these densely populated, highly networked, environments. V/R, RCP.

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