Insitu, a non-integrated subsidiary of Boeing, last week unveiled its new Integrator Extended Range, a beyond-line-of-sight, satellite communications (SATCOM)-enabled small unmanned aerial system capable of ranging modern combat theaters that could provide the U.S. Air Force with low-cost data gathering tools in conflicts now and in the future battlespace.
The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) delivers new capabilities in the same body as the original Integrator, to include range operations of 10 hours’ time on station at 200 nautical miles and six hours at 300 nautical miles, said Brandon Baker, Air Force program lead for Insitu. It includes a new, exchangeable jam-resistant SATCOM payload placed in the nose of the aircraft along with high quality full-motion video, improved bandwidth throughput and modularity to integrate multiple payloads, including electronic warfare and signals intelligence.
Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, unveiled its Integrator Extended Range unmanned aerial system at the Air Force Association's annual Air, Space and Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Insitu
The upgraded Integrator could provide the Air Force with a group 3-sized drone packed with capabilities normally only available in larger drones for use in permissive environments, Baker told sister publication Defense Daily in an interview at the Air Force Association’s (AFA) annual Air, Space and Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
“There are a whole bunch of tactical UAS around Afghanistan, but they’re all limited from 50 to 70 nautical miles of range,” he noted. “What we have done … to try and get more, smaller capability into the Air Force, is we brought satellite communications in the picture.”
Four years ago, the size and weight of a typical modem and antenna would have prohibited its placement on an Integrator-sized unmanned vehicle. But thanks to Moore’s law, one year ago Insitu test-flew a 12-pound system on the aircraft and successfully demonstrated its capability, Baker said.
“Now we’re ready to talk with the Air Force and other services about the art of the possible,” he said.
The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) highlighted a return to great power competition among the United States, Russia and China, and with it the need to invest in sophisticated aerospace capabilities and advanced technologies such as hypersonics and directed energy.
But the NDS also notes that the U.S. military must continue its efforts to counter violent extremism, and the Air Force must procure cost-effective capabilities that assist with close-air support, light attack and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, Air Combat Command Commander Gen. James Holmes told Defense Daily in an interview Sept. 12.
“While the secretary [of defense James Mattis] tells us to focus on regaining our readiness and preparing for competition with peer adversaries, he also says try to find cost-effective ways to continue the fight against violent extremists,” Holmes said. “If we are going to keep doing this for quite a while longer, then how can we do it in an affordable way and in a way that doesn’t take away our readiness for competing with peer adversaries?”
The Air Force has employed fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft in light attack and close-air support missions in permissive environments, and the service has been working to procure an off-the-shelf aircraft to perform those missions at a lower operating and maintenance cost. The Integrator Extended Range could also serve in that environment, filling the ISR gap, Baker said.
“Who watches the door for eight hours? That’s the market we want to get into,” he added.
Insitu also sees opportunities for its upgraded platform as the service looks to pivot toward a more network-centric battlefield strategy that spans multiple domains. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said the service must return to its “expeditionary roots” if it is to be more agile and flexible in countering advanced threats during his keynote speech at the AFA conference. Goldfein has also previously identified “multi-domain command and control” as a key function to develop for the future battlespace.
Baker noted that the Air Force’s vision of a “sensors grid” that fuses data from all military arenas will require more affordable unmanned systems that can operate in riskier settings.
“To be able to do that and to darken the skies with collectors, you need affordability. You can’t do that with really expensive [MQ-9] Reapers,” he said. “If they can start doing that on the cheap, then they can start talking about” attrition.
The Integrator’s advantage for expeditionary force movement is that it is not tied to a runway and can be catapult-launched from small spaces, Baker added. It requires about 12 people to operate and maintain for around-the-clock missions.
Insitu has a program of record with the Marine Corps for its RQ-21A Blackjack system, and provides data gathered by its ScanEagle platform to Special Operations Command via a company-owned/company-operated (COCO) ISR services contract where the company maintains control of the aircraft, said Travis Burdine, company director of business development. The Integrator is the commercial version of the Blackjack. Current customers who operate the Integrator or Blackjack will have the option to buy the new kit as alternate mission equipment, Burdine said.
“You might not always need that extended range. … It’s a bolt-on kit into the nose and you can swap it” out depending on whether a unit requires greater range or more detailed surveillance footage at a given time, he said. The Navy and Marine Corps, Canada and Poland all operate the Blackjack, while the Netherlands Ministry of Defense operates the Integrator, said Jennifer Beloy, defense media relations for Insitu.