DROP ZONE: The Future of Contested Teaming Operations


A package commander enters a threatened airspace in the near future.

“Picture West.”

Three Unmanned Autonomous Air Vehicles in a “diamond” formation with a single F-35 interpreted the human voice command and broke silent emission protocol to transmit a burst of radio frequencies to locate enemy jets. The front-most stealthy drone remained emission-silent and led a passive intercept to facilitate combat identification.

“Popup SAM threat, Bullseye two-seven-zero, one-hundred.” The SAM threat was unexpected, but the F-35 mission commander caught a glimpse of her defensive situation display to see a slowly-shrinking ellipse with a thirty-mile uncertainty around the one-hundred-mile threat distance.

“Single group, heavy, Bullseye two-five-zero, eighty-five, 38-thousand, bogey.”

Wing Drone 1 led the intercept.

“Group maneuver, seventy miles.”

The enemy group split into two, one north and one south. The F-35 processed closure speeds and the pilot recognized the split as an antiquated chaff diversion. Wing Drone 1 suddenly dove towards the ground. Wing Drone 2 stayed pointed at the chaff cloud. Wing Drone 3 split north to cutoff the diverging north group. Were they making mistakes?

“Fifty miles.”

“What are 1 and 2 doing?” questioned the F-35 pilot to the ground based battle manager.

“Do you want me to bring 1 back?” responded the controller.

“Negative, its safe, let it go,” commanded the F-35 pilot. Wing Drone 1 was flying towards the west at 53 feet AGL. The deviations were part of the dynamically evolving tactics being employed due to the learning power of the autonomous wingman.

“Forty miles.”

Just as the north arm began to threaten with a turn towards the F-35 pilot, Wing Drone 2 started turning in circles just in front of the chaff cloud that was posing as the south arm. The F-35 pilot watched Wing Drone 2’s sensor visualization on her cockpit displays to see what 2 was seeing on RADAR, LiDAR, and Electro-Optical feedback, but she was interrupted by it’s synthetic voice.


To the F-35 pilot, it was now clear. The heavy enemy group used chaff to obscure a stealth J-20 threat. While the F-35’s own radar was not sensitive enough to detect the threat J-20 at its current range, Wing Drone 2 combined its infrared and radar data and remained committed to the real threat within the chaff cloud. The Blue Force F-35 pilot tuned into Wing Drone 3’s sensor visualization feedback.

“F-35, lab integrator, 2 is engaged with a…”

The mission commander interrupted, “Got it, skip 2, what is 1 doing?”

“Thirty miles.”

While looking at Wing Drone 3’s sensor feedback, the F-35 was able to positively distinguish the signatures of two J-11 aircraft. “Drone 3, those are J-11s, I have identified as enemy, target enemy 2-ship.” Wing Drone 3 maneuvered to a more aggressive pursuit curve to present an optimal launch condition for its simulated AIM-9 missiles. “Drone 3, fox-two,” said the F-35 pilot.

“Three—fox-two-two-ship,” replied a digital synthetic voice.

“Twenty miles.”

The F-35 pilot was closer to the stealth threat than she wanted to be, but the continued spiral of Wing Drone 2 was positive feedback that the drone was still anchored in a control position on the threat J-20 turning in circles. The F-35 was close enough now to target the J-20 at tail aspect. “Drone 2, drop J-20, rejoin.” The F-35 loosed an AMRAAM, but waited to make the call so as not to confuse Wing Drone 2. “Fox-three, J-20, bullseye two-four-five, sixty miles.”

“Two—dropping-F-22-rejoin.” The deployed lab integrator made a note for the coding team to reprogram the drone voice response to say “rejoining” instead of “rejoin.” With the evolving complexity of autonomous teaming, a developmental team was deployed as part of the squadron.

“Blue lead, timeout fox-three, kill, single J-20, fifteen-thousand,” said the F-35 pilot.

“Three—-kill-two-ship-J-11-my-bullseye-thirty-thousand,” said Drone 3.

“Picture clear.”

Drone 1 pipped in, “Weapons away-SAM-bullseye-two-six-nine-ninety-eight.” Surprisingly, Drone 1 made a successful approach on the popup surface to air missile. The approach was close enough to loft a smart weapon, but Drone 1 did so without having accurate enough coordinates to destroy the SAM emitter. This was a new behavior that the integrated developmental team had never seen. The debrief would focus on why Drone 1 committed on the SAM. The test team’s Program Manager was already on the phone with another F-35 unit that was teaching Wing Drones to execute SAM takedowns, in order to have them available for a teleconference debrief.

“Drone One, return to base,” said the F-35 pilot.

“One—returning-to-base,” confirmed the synthetic voice.

— Nick “Hammer” Helms

The future of aerial warfare cannot exist without the substantial integration of unmanned platforms. Our adversaries have already realized the asymmetric advantage in removing the human being from the platform entering the contested environment. In next week’s series, Nick Helms analyzes the future of autonomous platforms in aerial combat. This article starts a series discussing how to develop, train, and employ unmanned platforms in future aerial combat.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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