Forget the slow, noisy drones that go after today's terrorists. Instead, picture swarms of tiny drones infiltrating heavily defended skies at will.
That's how the United States Air Force's drone shop sees it. The air service wants drone-makers to invent tiny aircraft -- nano-drones -- that can fly vast distances to spy on an enemy. These bug-like surveillance bots will be particularly useful in the Pacific, an Air Force official told a Washington conference on Tuesday. Because that represents the toughest challenge for American spyplanes: snooping on say, a China equipped with increasingly advanced air defenses.
Remember, from China to Iran, the nations that the U.S.'s famous Air Sea Battle concept appears tailor made to fight, are equipping themselves with advanced Russian-designed radars and surface to air missiles that threaten to shoot down all but the most advanced stealth aircraft. These countries are also investing in anti ship and ballistic missiles that are designed to keep an adversaries ships and especially aircraft carriers far from their shores. One of the traditional responses to overcoming such weapons is to build fast, long-range, high-flying, stealthy aircraft capable of evading these threats. Today, at the massive drone conference going on in Washington, we heard a new, wilder idea.
"As the Air Force is challenged by long ranges [in the Pacific] a nano that is re-chargeable, all the way along the route, is not challenged by distance," said Col. Bill Tart (his callsign is Sweet), the man in charge of figuring out what capabilities the Air Force's drones need. "How in the world are you going to defend against a nano?"
Just watch the video of a swarm of small drones playing the James Bond theme song to get a sense of what these little craft can already do.
"Those are all things we need you guys to think through," said Tart to a room full of drone industry representatives the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's annual conference.
The beauty of long-range drones is that they could come in from any point on an adversary's border, Tart told Killer Apps after his speech.
"You would have to defend everywhere because I have such long range capability," said Tart.
The key to this is making the tiny drones hyper-fuel efficient.
"I've had a lot of people come to me and talk about really interesting [things with] propulsion like fuel cell capabilities, that gives you a lot of range, people are talking about batteries that you can drop off of airplanes" after they run out of juice, thereby lightening the aircraft's load.
But the wildest concept is basically that of a flying iPhone charging dock. The technology allowing drones to refuel other drones in midair is already being tested. Imagine replacing with the hoses and drogues used by gas guzzling planes with cables and plugs.
"I've even had people come talk about, ‘hey, why don't we recharge in the air,'" Tart said. "Currently, for air refueling you either have a boom or a drogue that goes out, you connect and off you go."
Tart was talking about the way manned military aircraft meet a tanker plane in midair and refuel by either attaching themselves to a long boom extending from the back of the tanker or by extending a probe and plugging it into a hose that is trailing behind the tanker.
"Clearly that would be a mindset way to do recharging in the air."
Still, such super long distance nano-tech isn't exactly around the corner. In addition to building tiny drones capable of flying very, very far, you'd have to develop tiny sensors and secure communications gear to make them effective.
That means that the Air Force is looking at how to build larger spyplanes able to take photos and gather electronic intelligence over heavily defended nations. Not long ago, U.S. Strategic Command commander Gen. Robert Kehler made waves in military circles by saying he needs a new, high-end spyplane that can zip through advanced air defenses -- like China's -- to back-up America's network of surveillance satellites.
"We absolutely are looking at different ways on the high-end to provide penetrating ISR," Tart added, using the acronym for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. "Whether that is via stealth, that'll be something that's decided as we move forward in the future."
The service may decide to simply build better sensors and cameras that can stare into enemy territory while mounted on a less-stealthy plane flying beyond the range of the enemy's air defenses.
"There's two ways to look into your enemy, either from really far distance because your sensors are really great or . . . overflight" similar to what the Air Force's legendary Mach 3 spyplane, the SR-71 Blackbird, did over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Advanced air defenses make the overflight option very risky.
(Still, he pointed out that almost all future Air Force combat jets are being designed with stealth in mind.)
He then offered a cryptic hint about how such a high-end spyplane might work with the new stealth bomber being developed when asked by yours truly.
While, "it's not the same" as the Air Force's new stealth bomber (that may or may not be unmanned), also under development, "we've said that everything needs to be modular," said Tart.
This means the service wants its next generation of combat aircraft to be stealthy trucks capable of swapping out mission payloads as if they were fancy USB sticks.
"Plug and play means cameras or fuel, or weapons or" electronic warfare gear, said Tart. "So, the next-generation will be unmanned, long-range, penetrating, modular."
Service officials have long said the fleet of 80 to 100 new stealth bombers will operate in cooperation with a "family" of stealthy spy aircraft and cruise missiles to overcome advanced enemy air defenses. The first of these new stealth bombers are slated to enter service sometime in the 2020s, with later versions being built to carry nuclear weapons.
All this paints a picture of a stealthy, potentially unmanned, long-range plane that can have its payload swapped out depending on mission needs. Judging by reports suggesting the Air Force already has a secret bomber being built in the deserts of the Western U.S., it likely has a jump start on its next spy plane too.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.