New MALE Drone Capabilities with AI

The Power Behind NATO’s Cross-Domain Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance?

By Colonel (ret.)

By Col



, FR


General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

 June 2020


With the current security challenges that Europe and NATO are facing, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) requirements have now grown well beyond traditional military needs. The resurgence of the Russian threat at NATO borders and the maritime domain demand the reestablishment of a persistent Joint ISR capability to give NATO the ability to collect strategic and operational multi-intelligence (Imagery, Radar, Accoustic, Signals) to complement that produced by US European Command and members nations. In a period where NATO nations have dramatically reduced their Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) capabilities, Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft (MALE RPA) are the perfect cost-effective supplement to the remaining manned ISR aircraft. However in the future, these platforms developed for armed ISR loitering in permissive airspace will probably no longer be capable of operating in more and more contested airspaces. This warrants a new family of RPA with a certain level of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI). In fact, as ‘there is nothing more manned than an unmanned system’ automation and AI will have to be introduced to sort the collected data, enable continued flight in electromagnetic spectrum jammed conditions, and fuse collected data with other intelligence collectors to present the most comprehensive common relevant operational picture (CROP) for the decision-makers.

New Context

NATO is at a crossroads in its history. After a period of peace dividend that included a drastic reduction of Command and Control (C2) structure and defence spending by most member nations, the security situation has fundamentally degraded on almost all borders of the alliance. Threats have not only multiplied, but have regained a peer to peer nature. With the investment in the Allied Ground Surveillance (AGS) program, for the first time NATO possesses an organic capability to establish its own Situational Awareness (SA) on the ground in addition to its legacy air recognized picture, thanks to its AWACS fleet. But these capabilities are limited in number, lack multi-intelligence sensors and, most importantly for AGS, lack Positive Identification (PID) capabilities. Other challenges include the Process Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) of cross domain Joint ISR data in a multinational environment for collective defence, reassurance measures, coalition-based missions (Unified Protector for example) or alert forces (i.e. NATO Response Force (NRF)). But today, and even more so tomorrow, the challenge is to fuse the collected data available in cyberspace (open sources and social medias). This challenge of big data and multi-intelligence collection will only be mastered with automation and AI aided PED. Without this revolution in the analysis part of the Joint ISR process, the continuous collection by platforms equipped with near or real-time sensors will not produce intelligence to match the expectations of decision-makers and the requirements of the fielded forces. Next-generation assets and sensors require next-generation C2, called Joint All Domain C2 (JADC2) and a next generation PED process is necessary to establish the CROP and speed up the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loops at all levels.

Next-generation Surveillance MALE

The ‘Dronic Revolution’ is in fact inexorably underway. The first generation MQ-9A Reaper has an endurance of 24 hours while the new MQ-9B Sky Guardian to be delivered to the UK and Belgium has more than 40 hours. It foreshadows ongoing and future RPA concepts of operation will evolve thanks to technologies and how they will affect the OODA loop as well as NATO’s Joint ISR enterprise. Technology continues to eliminate most current operational constraints by helping collection of data and intelligence to satisfy the requirements of persistence, precision and time contraction across the full spectrum of NATO Multi-domain operations. The significant increase in endurance will offer ‘occupation of the airspace’ over a target and its environment, as time on station would then be counted in days. For that to become routine, the next few years will see the advent of RPAs built to civilian aircraft standards. In fact, these RPAs systems will be certifiable according to the standards established by civil aviation and NATO standards (STANAG 4671 Unmanned Aircraft System Airworthness Requirements – USAR). Initially conceived to fill surveillance and combat roles, the use of large RPAs remained limited to the Dirty, Dull and Dangerous missions. Their production logic followed performance and low-cost objectives, because of their supposed ‘expendable’ character, more than the respect of airworthiness standards. The demands of European customers in particular have forced Israeli and US RPA manufacturers to take this mandatory requirement into account. In order to perform these deployments all over NATO members’ airspace and areas of responsibility, modern RPA will also be equipped with a full ‘Sense and Avoid’ suite. It comprises an air to air radar coupled with Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) offering a credible alternative to the see and avoid rule. The RPAs will therefore be able to perform, like any modern aircraft, automatic trajectory avoidance with other aircraft whether they are cooperative, (i.e. equipped with similar devices), or not. Coupled with protections against icing and lightning, the flights of these large RPAs will be conducted without having to physically separate the manned aircraft with those flown remotely.

The MQ-9B demonstrates that it is now possible to deploy a multi-sensor ISR capability thousands of kilometres from its home base. Based on a three GPS point-based automated SATCOM landing technology, the aircraft can now deploy to any airfield. The only requirement is a small team of technicians at the deployment site to perform pre- and post-flight checks and refuelling. It is no longer necessary to dismantle the aircraft and deploy the entire system (to include the launch and recovery element). This facilitates the availability of an initial ISR capability in emergency missions outside country or for homeland operations. With this capability, every existing airfield in the area of operations becomes a potential diversion site in case of weather or technical problems. In addition, the redundancy of the main Beyond Line-of-Sight (BLOS) link with a secondary satellite link operating on another frequency band ensures the continuation of the mission, thus enables maintaining permanently piloting capabilities even in the event of communication interference, jamming or technical problems. Satellite data links are used to fly, operate sensors, and disseminate the ISR data collected from the aircraft to the cockpit and the C2 system. Beyond the impact on the ISR mission itself, these link losses, though fortunately rare, reveal a true weakness, especially when RPAs operate in an unsegregated environment or in bad weather. Equipped with a second satellite link, the aircraft remains pilotable and continue its mission safely. In addition to the Sense and Avoid Equipment mentioned above, this double security undeniably make aircraft more resistant to jamming operations and makes them perfectly suitable for flights in civilian airspace. The continuous adaptation of their sensors to address military as well as domestic mission imply a certain level of plug-and-play capabilities.

National Platforms that Could Operate NATO-Owned Plug-and-play Sensors

Modern RPAs will allow more sensors to be integrated according to customers needs. The ISR omni-role platform will be plug-and-play and ‘sensors agnostic’. As RPAs will allow constant monitoring of a target and its environment, it is necessary to capitalize on that through a modularity of sensors ideally without hampering endurance. Sensor variety ranges from traditional real-time Full Motion Video (FMV) high-definition cameras to multi-mode radars and a wide range of guided weapons and multi-intelligence sensors (communication intelligence, electronic intelligence, wide-area motion imagery (WAMI), hyperspectral, LIDAR, Electronic Warfare for offensive and defensive self-protection, anti-submarine warfare, etc.). For obvious reasons of sovereignty, the idea is to offer the possibility, or coalition data sharing requirements, to quickly perform integration of specific weapons and sets of sensors without losing the airworthiness certificate of the flight system. This flexible plug-and-play capacity for sovereign and/or coalition missions will be a considerable step forward, especially if completed with multi-mission command computer at CAOC or on board of ship in order to take control of the sensors, if not the aircraft for a specific part of the mission. Additionally it may be a solution to solve the data-sharing issue within NATO. Nationally owned platforms could operate NATO owned plug-and-play sensor suites on a routine basis, for NRF missions or specific operations. In addition, integrating a self-protection suite on traditional MALE aircraft is becoming more and more necessary in the light of recent events in Libya and Yemen where MALE aircraft were shot down. It would also be a first step and low-cost option allowing operations in more contested airspace and continued operations of armed ISR missions outside traditional counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. The limitations of these systems will require augmenting their level of automation with AI aided pilot and navigation systems as well as the development of newer, more combat capable platforms.

AI Aided for PED and New Gen RPAs

Timely acquisition of quality data and preserving the integrity of such data for targeting cycles are paramount in the digitalised world. Even more, in a contested environment, the OODA loop will have to be fed continuously with real-time data. Therefore, more automation and a certain level of on-board AI will be necessary. It will apply not only to control certain parts of the flight system when the BLOS link is either disrupted and/or jammed, but also to on-board data processing sending only the relevant information to the cockpit and the C2 system. These evolutions are likely to be the next step in RPA development along with more agile and stealthy RPA platforms. In order to strengthen transmission capabilities of these new platforms, laser transmission is probably a next step forward as a back-up if not the main tool to preserve real-time flow of information. In fact, it is probably the only way to increase necessary fusion capabilities of cross-domain operations for these platforms to not only collect, but also to process their own data on board and fuse them with other collected data. The first step of AI employment will likely be the PED on the ground. Autonomous or AI-aided combat RPAs are still posing a certain number of ethical and legal questions. The ideal situation should not only feed Collection Shares Databases (CSD) with raw data available to multiple customers, but also perform automated cross cueing of sources to augment the CROP. For example, AGS ground moving target indicator data should be processed automatically into a geospatial intelligence product consisting of fused multi-layers and multi-sensors (open-source intelligence, FMV, image intelligence and signals intelligence) for Joint ISR and targeting purposes.


Technology will no doubt continue to facilitate the use of MALE RPAs in the same manner as manned aircraft as automation and AI facilitate processing and fusing of multi-intelligence including open sources. The emergence of more capable RPAs will be in line with new-generation aircraft to satisfy the requirements of persistence, precision and time contraction across the full spectrum of defence and homeland missions including operations in more and more contested airspaces. These new-generation RPAs will have to be able to continue to occupy the airspace in order to perform continued ISR collection while performing other ones like early warning, air-to-air refuelling, ballistic missile defence and SIGINT. They will have to address new missions like Suppression/destruction of Enemy Defence and electronic warfare, as well as air to air missions autonomously and/or in conjunction with an AWACS or traditional fighter aircraft as loyal or slave wingman. The open software architecture offered by the MQ-9B family of aircraft could enable NATO nation owned platforms to operate NATO owned plug-and-play sensor suites on a routine basis, for NRF missions or specific operations and, therefore, solve the challenge of exchanging intelligence. Only automation and AI are likely to provide future Joint All Domain C2 the necessary level of information and intelligence requested to perform cross-domain operations. The introduction of AI-based automation will first affect data analysis, then assist in flying multiple aircraftw, and undoubtedly in executing more kinetic operations. It’s the next iteration of the on-going revolution. Paradoxically, it may be remotely AI-augmented piloted aircraft that lend strength to the prophetic quotation of Clement Ader, ‘He who will master the air will master the world’.

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Colonel (ret.)
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

Colonel (ret.) Christophe ‘Taraz’ Fontaine is the director of strategic development for Europe at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. Former colonel, he served 30 years in the French Air Force and deployed 28 times worldwide as an ISR, CSAR, EW, SOF, targeting, RPA and Air C2 expert; was NATO doctrine JISR document custodian, French air staff ISR division chief and the first French MQ-9 Reaper squadron commander.

Information provided is current as of June 2020

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