The drones will be able to scout ahead, act as decoys, and launch electronic warfare and other strikes directly against threats they find.
The U.S. Army has released a detailed look at what it wants from a new family of air-launched multi-purpose unmanned aircraft, which will include types capable of operating as scouts, electronic attackers, decoys, and even suicide drones. They will be capable of semi-autonomous operating together with other manned or unmanned planes and helicopters and may be able to work together by themselves as a fully-autonomous, networked swarm. These so-called “Air Launch Effects” are set to be a key component of the arsenal for the Army’s future advanced armed scout and assault transport helicopters, but will also almost certainly find their way onto other existing and future manned and unmanned platforms, including the service’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones.
The Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) released a request for information for possible drones and associated technologies that could into various types of these Air Launch Effects (ALE) on Aug. 12, 2020. The contracting notice is focused primarily on prospective drones that fit into “large” and “small” size categories and systems to enable them to perform one or more of four different functions, active and passive surveillance types, decoys, and those capable of “disrupting” the enemy via non-kinetic strikes. There is also a mention of an “ALE-Lethal,” a loitering munition type, though the specific desired capabilities for it are not outlined in the document.
“The future multi-domain operational environment will present a highly lethal and complex set of traditional and non-traditional targets,” the contracting document says by way of introduction. “These targets will include networked and mobile air defense systems with extended ranges, and long and mid-range fires systems that will deny freedom of maneuver.”
As it stands now, the Army says that the large ALE category will consist of drones weighing no more than 225 pounds, and hopefully less than 175 pounds. The service wants them to, at a minimum, be able to fly at speeds of at least 70 knots with a combat range of up to 350 kilometers and a total flight time of 30 minutes. The goal is to be able to push those performance specifications to up to 650 kilometers and an hour of total time in the air.
The small category will include drones under 100 pounds, and possibly no more than 50 pounds, in the end, that can cruise at 30 knots over a distance of 100 kilometers and have a total flying time of at least 30 minutes. The objective performance for these smaller ALEs is a 150-kilometer range and an hour of flight time.
The Army also wants both types to have much higher “dash” speeds to allow them to rapidly get to a particular area or relocate from one to another. The service says that the large ones should able to hit at 350 knots for short sprints, and maybe even go as fast as 600 knots, while the smaller ones would need to get up to at least 120 knots, with a goal of a maximum speed of 205 knots. The service says it is willing to explore proposals involving any type of propulsion system, including combustion or jet engines or electric power.
As part of a larger “ecosystem” to defeat these threats, there is a need for “a family of small and large unmanned air launched systems that operate as members of a team with other manned and unmanned platforms to detect, identify, locate, report (DILR) and deliver lethal and non-lethal effects against threats,” it continues.