The integration of manned and unmanned systems may be the next step in the evolution of air operations. In this post, Donald Woldhuis and Michael Spencer describe the US Army’s approach to integrating tactical unmanned systems with the AH-64 Apache, referred to as Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). Is this a capability that smaller forces should be looking to when considering the replacement of their battlefield helicopter fleets?

New battlefield helicopter capabilities are being developed by the US Army that will integrate manned and unmanned systems as part of an emerging Manned-UnManned Teaming (MUM-T) capability for its AH-64 helicopters. MUM-T is a standardised systems architecture and communications protocol that enables live video and still images gained from the sensor payloads of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to be shared across a force to improve battlefield situational awareness. MUM-T will provide the teamed helicopter crews with network connectivity to UAV missions being conducted in the same battlespace, both on a deliberately planned or opportunity basis. The improved ability for helicopter aircrew to receive and share live intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data will improve their adaptability and responsiveness to changes in the battlespace, thereby enhancing their decision superiority.

US Army battlefield helicopters previously teamed with OH-58 Kiowa manned reconnaissance helicopters to conduct attack missions against targets on the ground, such as enemy infantry and armoured fighting vehicles. Apache aircrew typically fly nap-of-the-Earth to evade enemy defences which made targeting difficult for their onboard target surveillance and acquisition systems. The Kiowa was ideal as an agile tactical air vehicle to provide ISR information for targeting.

After a 30-year history of teaming, dating back to the Vietnam War, the US Army embarked on a modernisation program and began decommissioning the Kiowa helicopters in 2014, with the last being decommissioned in September 2017. As US Army AH-64 Apache battlefield helicopter units assumed the reconnaissance role from the Kiowas, the US Army began looking for innovative new ways that could provide ISR support to the Apaches in an era when the modern battlefield is being covered by many high-altitude and persistent ISR sensors from many different air missions operating concurrently in the same or nearby mission areas where the Apaches are likely to be flown.

US Army looked to MUM-T as a means to connect Apaches with existing UAV systems that are in operational service and being used combat ISR missions, and gain access to real-time UAV ISR data. The traditional systems architecture used for battlefield command, control, and communications to provide options for sharing ISR data between different types of systems using MUM-T. Beyond the simple sharing of data originally conceived for MUM-T, the new MUM-T architecture also makes it possible to transfer the direct control of the UAV sensor, or the total UAV system (including the sensor), to the Apache aircrew.

Australian Army operators have described combat experiences from overseas battlefields has taught the importance of organic ISR. From the Battle of Mosul, reported as the largest conventional land battle since the 2003 capture of Baghdad, it was deduced that “the most effective weapon on the current battlefield is a joint and interagency enabled combined arms ground team with an Armed ISR platform flying above… An Army without organic airborne Armed ISR will be at a severe disadvantage on a contemporary urban battlefield.”

The observed success in employing UAVs to improve situational awareness has increased demands for more responsive support from ISR systems operating closer to the enemy and the rapid transfer of the latest detailed ISR data over longer communications ranges. One solution is to leverage the direct support missions and independent missions already operating concurrently in adjoining or overlapping areas. MUM-T enables a networked force to share ISR data over a broader area thereby supporting decision superiority of forces in the tactical fight. More informed tactical decisions can be made closer to and over the battlefield by reducing the dependency on rear-echelons to centrally process, exploit and disseminate mission results and situational awareness updates.

With MUM-T, task force commanders can choose from a range of integration options for combining assets and perform a single mission or multiple missions concurrently. A team of manned helicopters and unmanned air vehicles, each configured for different mission roles but working as a coordinated team can be tasked to cooperatively achieve a mission objective. Alternatively, MUM-T enables commanders to separately deploy manned and unmanned air vehicles on discrete missions with the capability to share data between them, and also temporarily divert control of an ISR sensor or UAV between operators in the different missions.  Additionally, a networked combat UAV, configured with strike weapons, may also be teamed with a manned helicopter. This teaming provides additional fire support options that extend its fire support mission after its weapons are spent, additional options for weapons effects if the UAV is loaded with different configured warheads, and extend the engagement range in the mission beyond the engagement range of the helicopter.

NATO has prepared NATO STANAG 4586 – Standard Interfaces of UAV Control System (UCS) for NATO UAV Interoperability to describe five different Levels of Interoperability (LOI) to cover the five levels of MUM-T complexity and which UAV control functionalities are shared with another user in the mission team, as follows:

  • LOI-1 Pushing ISR Imagery from Network – the receipt and retransmission of secondary imagery (ie imagery that has been processed and uploaded by the source into the battlefield network, for access by a network user) by the manned aircraft;
  • LOI-2 Pulling ISR Imagery Directly from Source – the receipt of primary video imagery that is being directly streamed from a UAV, or relayed from different platforms, into the manned aircraft using Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL);
  • LOI-3 Forward Remote Operations of the UAV Payload – using the TCDL to transfer operational control to enable the manned aircraft to remotely control the operation of the UAV payload sensor (eg remotely pointing and recording the sensor); and
  • LOI-4 Forward Remote Operation of the UAV, excluding take-off and landing – using the TCDL to transfer operational control and enable the manned aircraft to remotely control the operation of the deployed UAV, excluding control of the take-off and landing (eg remotely controlling the UAV flight trajectory and payload operation, including the sensors and weapons).
  • LOI-5 Remote Operation of the UAV, including launch and recovery – using the TCDL to transfer operational control and enable the manned aircraft to remotely control the operation of the UAV, including control of the take-off and landing.

NATO STANAG 4586 is useful for operators and systems designers to engage in the development of new and modified systems using a common understanding of MUM-T concepts. However, manned helicopter systems already put its operators in a situation that is demanding, complex, and with a high workload. While MUM-T offers advantages to improving the situational awareness of the helicopter aircrew, it should not be at the expense of the original role for which the helicopter was designed. A major consideration in MUM-T-enabled systems is managing the increase in the operator workload associated with accepting control of the ISR sensor and UAV System designers must give due regard to the impact of MUM-T on aircrew workloads.  The operating concepts for MUM-T must be cognisant of the human factors and capacity to balance the management of the operator’s mission system while concurrently controlling another mission system.

Current concepts for employing MUM-T typically focus on the UAV supporting the manned aircraft. However, in the future, a role reversal might occur, and a manned aircraft is configured to provide direct support autonomously to unmanned robotic UAVs. As an example, a large multi-crew and multi-sensor ISR aircraft might be configured to provide force-level ISR over a battlespace in direct support of multiple independent UAV missions. Each deployed UAV might autonomously network with the ISR aircraft receiving data updates, or even temporarily take control of an onboard sensor to gain specific information on the battlefield situation before continuing on its mission.

Through operational use and testing by combat helicopter units, MUM-T systems are demonstrating their value and capability. These systems will provide mission commanders with the ability to reliably and quickly inform networked battlefield situational awareness and increase the economy of force in the use of limited combat resources. MUM-T provides operators with the option to exploit manned and

Australian Army Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]

unmanned air capabilities deployed on otherwise discrete missions in the same operating area. Having an optional capability to network and produce a new mission synergy provides increased flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness to a dynamically changing battlespace, enabling better decision superiority on the battlefield.

The 2016 Defence White Paper states that the Army Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters will be replaced and that new dedicated light helicopters will be acquired for Special Forces. MUM-T may be an option to provide cost-effective ways to enhance and improve mission-level situational awareness by integrating future helicopter systems with current and planned ISR sensors and UAVs. MUM-T enables the network integration of manned and unmanned platforms operating in the networked joint battlespace. The better that two aircraft can communicate, the better they can share situational awareness data, resulting in more effective and better informed aircrew who can confidently make better and timely decisions on the battlefield.

Lieutenant Colonel Donald Woldhuis recently completed a year as a Fellow at the RAAF Air Power Development Centre in Canberra. The focus of his research was the importance and influences of electronic warfare to fifth-generation air forces. He has operational experience as an AH-64D Apache helicopter pilot in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, including multiple operational deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. Besides flying, his previous postings included liaison, tactics development, Head of Operations, Squadron Command, and policy writing at the Netherlands Defence Headquarters. He is also a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff Course.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently serving at the RAAF Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to future air power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management, air and space concept development, air capability development, and joint force capability integration. He is also an Associate Fellow and Section Committee member of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Netherlands Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, the Netherlands Ministry of Defence, the Australian Government, or the Government of the Netherlands.