The operating environment is changing at an exponential rate, forcing NATO to come up with innovative solutions to successfully confront an ever-larger array of challenges, threats and potential adversaries. Multiple recent strategic analysis reports 2, 3, 4 have given the political and military leadership of the Alliance insight into what those challenges, threats, and potential adversaries might look like and how they might affect the Alliance’s ability to effectively and efficiently conduct its operations twenty years from now.
The very difficult process of translating all of this into tangible solutions, in the form of abilities and ultimately capabilities at the tactical level from 2035 and beyond, has only just started. The aim of this series of articles is to provide insights into how the operating environment of 2035 and beyond could shape the Future Battlefield Rotorcraft Capability (FBRC) in support of NATO forces operating in the land and littoral environments. Although it is today virtually impossible to define the total set of requirements and characteristics of the different rotorcraft5 that ultimately will be at the heart of this new capability, it is worthwhile investigating how the future operating environment, including anticipated technological developments, as well as the potential requirements emanating from the direct users of this new capability are likely to shape the next generation of rotorcraft and their associated organic units.
In this first of three articles, the most defining factors of the future operating environment, as determined in strategic reports as well as technological research reports, will be analysed and evaluated for their direct potential impact on the shaping of the FBRC. These factors will be primarily technological in nature and will consequently define the technological characteristics of the platforms that will eventually constitute the new capability.
The Rise of the Megacity
The future operating environment will be shaped by climate change, overall scarcity of resources, and technological development and exacerbated by the pervasive effects of globalisation. It will therefore be characterized by unprecedented levels of risk and uncertainty, bringing the currently used but ever enduring descriptors ‘Congested, Cluttered, Contested, Connected, and Constrained’6 to a whole new level. Indeed, the dynamics of warfare in a 2040 megacity, which counts 30 to 50 million inhabitants, can by no means be compared to any kind of fight in Built-Up Areas the Alliance has undertaken so far. It is not only the sheer size of this future Area of Operations (AoO) that will dramatically change the way of conducting operations, but even more so the very complex multi-layered and multi-faceted environment the megacity will generate and potentially offer to future adversaries. Even more than was the case in the past decades, adversaries will use the ‘advantages’ megacities have to offer in pursuit of their objectives. With some notable exceptions, every kind of successful warfare has been asymmetric in nature and there would be no better place than the future metropolis to exploit asymmetric Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures to the fullest. For any Alliance Task Force, it would be virtually impossible to physically seal off such an AoO and consequently guarantee complete or even sufficient freedom of movement for its own troops. Likewise, it would become impossible to control the information domain, which is so critical in the build-up of Situational Awareness (SA) and in any decision-making process. Finally, it would demand a disproportional amount of effort to even try to effectively manage the potential flux of goods and people in those parts of a megacity where governmental control has ceased to exist. But the truth is that NATO will not have a choice. This AoO will be forced upon the Alliance, especially by those adversaries who cannot match NATO’s capabilities in less congested environments.
Furthermore, NATO acknowledges its technological superiority will be challenged, and consequently, it will need to develop abilities to counter a wide range of proliferating threats posed by the rising capabilities of near-peer or peer potential adversaries.7 These threats can either be kinetic or non-kinetic in nature, but both will have the potential to destroy rotorcraft or at least seriously degrade their performance to an extent that could lead to mission failure. Considering the fact that rotorcraft, due to the very nature of their employment, are forced to operate close to the ground, they will be exposed to a plethora of kinetic weapons and weapon-systems ranging from Small Arms Fire (SAF) and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) to Anti-Air Artillery (AAA) to MAN Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) and Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs). In addition, they might be engaged by Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) such as high-powered lasers and microwave emitters. They might also be exposed to less kinetic but equally lethal attacks with Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear (CBRN) weapons, putting the crews and passengers at risk. Finally, they will be forced to operate in a highly contested electro-magnetic environment in which FBRC units and platforms could become the targets of deliberate electronic attack. The effects of these electronic attacks could range from disturbing but manageable interferences to the communications and navigation systems up to a near-complete loss of SA.
Resulting Technological Requirements for the FBRC
To survive and operate in this immensely hostile environment, every single rotorcraft will need to be equipped with a combination of passive and active defensive systems incorporated in a purely military platform design aimed at maximum autonomy and survivability. As far as maximum autonomy is concerned, every design should cater for redundant communication and navigation systems allowing the crews to continue their mission even when the Global Positioning System (GPS) is no longer available, either temporarily or indefinitely, or when the on-board flight and mission management systems are no longer able to connect to a central network. Furthermore, to guarantee maximum survivability, the design of every rotorcraft should allow its crews to operate in a CBRN contaminated environment, ideally without the necessity to wear special protective clothing and with the ability to easily decontaminate the rotorcraft itself at the end of the mission.
In the same way, every rotorcraft should be equipped with a state-of-the-art and fully autonomous ‘Defensive Aids Suite’ (DAS) providing the capability to detect threats at a very early stage and eliminate them by either non-kinetic or kinetic means.
This DAS should therefore incorporate high-definition sensors able to detect threats based on their infra-red or electro-magnetic signature as well as jammers preventing the rotorcraft from being tracked, locked, and engaged by actively emitting weapon systems. In addition to the classic chaff and flare dispensers, the DAS should equally incorporate defensive systems such as decoys and low energy lasers, able to either prevent missiles from being fired, deflect them from their intended target, or destroy them altogether. Finally, this DAS should be equipped with a fully automated, on-board weapon system able to physically destroy or at least suppress most of the threats and to defeat terminal larger-size projectiles and missiles. The armament of this on-board weapon system should be based on a gun or canon but could also be complemented with guided rockets and fire-and-forget missiles.
Additionally, the rotorcraft should be able to take the proverbial beating. Although it would be virtually impossible to survive all types of kinetic impacts, especially those coming from weapon systems such as RPGs, MANPADS and SAMs designed to defeat large or heavily armoured targets, the future battlefield rotorcraft should be able to survive being hit by SAF, light AAA and even some DEWs. This means vital parts of the rotorcraft should receive robust anti-ballistic protection against kinetic impacts, but also essential systems or subsystems should be doubled so that the rotorcraft can continue its mission, or at least return safely home, in the event of being hit.
The physical environment will equally do its part of the shaping. Next to the fact that the FBRC will need to be able to operate in a littoral, hence salty, environment, the current requirements with regard to ‘Hot & High’ will also endure. Specific attention will have to be paid to the particular dangers the future physical operating environment will pose to crews and rotorcraft. Consequentially, fully automated take-offs, approaches, and landings should be made possible to mitigate the very detrimental effects of ‘brownout’ and, albeit to a lesser degree, ‘whiteout’. In addition, to facilitate operations in the very complex three-dimensional battlespace, the rotorcraft will need to be equipped with sensors and devices to avoid collision with natural as well as artificial obstacles but also with other users of the third dimension that are likely to significantly increase in numbers.
The Emergence of Autonomous RPA Systems
Current and future technological developments will not only contribute to an increased and diversified threat. They will also provide the FBRC with solutions to counter them as well as with innovative ways to accomplish its future missions. One of the most obvious technologies expected to considerably influence the future operating environment will be that of the ubiquitous robot.8 In addition to the existing Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), we may witness the advent of fully autonomous weapon systems able to select and engage targets without human intervention. Both weapon systems are likely to come in two forms. At one end of the spectrum, we are likely to see the development of high-end, highly sophisticated RPAs with extended loiter times and a variety of sensors and weapons aimed at dominating the operating environment. Upon request and within a customer-and-provider relationship, they will be able to temporarily team up with the rotorcraft and provide it with complementary – and often superior – sensing and shooting capabilities. At the other end of the spectrum, we will see the emergence of swarms of low-cost, single-use, and expendable robots, launched by either an RPA or by the rotorcraft themselves, aimed at the degradation or even destruction of enemy offensive and defensive systems. In conclusion, both the RPA and the robot will provide the FBRC with the ability to not only detect and defeat threats at an early stage but also to execute missions more effectively and more safely.
But in what form will these RPAs and robots come? Similar to the next generation of the fixed wing RPA, the remotely piloted rotorcraft will also undergo a dramatic evolution. Their unique characteristics will provide commanders with tactical as well as logistic solutions that simply cannot be provided by other assets if not at unacceptable costs in terms of risks to crews and assets as well as availability. Especially for routine or emergency re-supply missions, the unmanned rotorcraft has a bright future ahead of itself.9
Conclusions and Outlook
As militaries begin to consider the future of FBRC, it is clear technology will have a huge role to play. In conclusion, three themes must be considered during future capability development:
Purely Military Design. Only a purely military design will allow for the effective and efficient integration of the full range of protective equipment that would allow the rotorcraft to survive to operate. Therefore, even more than today, there will be no longer a place within the FBRC for those contemporary helicopter types that are merely militarized versions of an existing civilian model. Today these models are mostly found in the different fleets of Light Utility Helicopters, such as the A-109 or the UH-72.
Considerable Cost. The FBRC will come at a considerable cost with regard to overall added weight, space on and within the rotorcraft and, obviously, financial resources.
Hybrid Nature. The FBRC will be hybrid by nature. It will consist of both manned and unmanned platforms that can either operate autonomously or in concert with remote piloting. As such the FBRC will make optimum use of technology to execute its full range of missions in the most effective, efficient and safe way possible.
In the second article, a similar analysis will evaluate the FBRC’s clients’ to-be-expected requirements that will ultimately shape the new capability not only in terms of platform characteristics such as size and cargo capacity, but also in terms of quantity and organisational structure. The third article will attempt to describe the whole FBRC following the DOTMLPFI10 methodology as defined by NATO Allied Command Transformation.