Dyke Weatherington is the deputy director, Unmanned Warfare, Portfolio Systems Acquisition in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (OUSD) for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition. He is responsible for acquisition oversight for Department of Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and associated subsystems, including sensors and communications links within the OUSD/AT&L. He is responsible for numerous UAS programs, including the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System, Global Hawk, Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, Predator, Extended-Range Multi-Purpose (ERMP), Reaper, Shadow, Fire Scout, and many small UAS programs. Weatherington is also the functional lead for the deputy secretary of Defense-directed UAS Task Force.
Prior to coming to the OUSD, then-Lt. Col. (USAF Retired) Weatherington was the program element monitor for U-2 and Global Hawk sensors, data-links, and imagery standards within the USAF Air Staff (SAF/AQI), serving in this position from 1997 to 2001. During this assignment, he also served as the U.S. Head of Delegation to NATO Air Group IV in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission area.
Previous experience included positions as the Chief of the Precision Targeting Branch at the reconnaissance System Program Office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio (WPAFB). Earlier Air Force management and engineering positions included activities at the Ballistic Missile Office (BMO) at Norton AFB and intelligence analysis efforts at the Foreign Technology Division (now National Air Intelligence Center; NAIC), also at WPAFB.
Weatherington was born and raised on his family farm near Burnside, Ill. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering mechanics from the United States Air Force Academy (1981) and a Master of Arts in National Security Studies from California State University (1993). He is also a graduate of the Air Force Air Command and Staff College and the Defense Systems Management College. He has been awarded numerous OSD and Air Force decorations, including the Office of Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service and the Air Force Airman’s Medal.
John D. Gresham: How did the Unmanned Warfare Office come into being and what is its basic mission statement?
Dyke Weatherington: Within AT&L, we have a directorate called Portfolio Systems Acquisition. That directorate has acquisition oversight over all the major defense acquisition programs. Prior to the creation of the Unmanned Warfare Office, we had four primary directorates doing acquisition oversight, basically in a functional breakdown. We had an Air Warfare directorate, a Naval Warfare directorate, a Land Force and Munitions directorate, and a Strategic Warfare directorate. Over the last five years, this department has seen significant growth in a technology area we typically call “unmanned warfare.” That portfolio has grown from several hundred million dollars a year annually, to, this year, close to $5 billion a year. Due to that increase, the department made the decision that it needed to break out the unmanned “systems” if you like – air systems, ground systems, and both surface and subsurface maritime systems – into a separate directorate and to get better oversight and take advantage of the synergies between those domains as this technology area developed.
How big is your office, and how many people work for you?
Like the other Department of Defense [DoD] directorates, Unmanned Warfare is an office of about 10 to 11 people, equally split between government, civilians, military, and contractors. It’s a small office. Our traditional function is acquisition oversight of Acquisition Category 1 [ACAT1] Major Defense Acquisition Programs [MDAP]. The Unmanned Warfare Office also has a secondary role, and that is working cross-service/cross-domain issues that exist within DoD for unmanned systems. To accomplish that, in 2007 we stood up an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Task Force with the support of the other DoD organizations. So, it’s not really an AT&L task force, it’s a DoD task force led by AT&L that, again, is working the cross-domain issues within DoD for unmanned systems. For example, that task force has the lead role on working airspace integration issues for unmanned aircraft systems [UASs]. It’s also got the lead for working a broad range of interoperability issues for unmanned systems overall, not just UASs. For example, it has the lead for developing a road map for spectrum and frequency issues associated with unmanned systems. The catalyst for that has been UASs, but it is really broader than aircraft. It pertains to all unmanned systems.
You talk about the fact that you’ve gone from a budget of a few hundred million dollars to what is now more than $5 billion. What have you seen during your time here that has led to this sudden and very rapid growth in their acquisition and operational use?
That’s a multi-faceted answer, and I will attempt to identify what I believe are the major elements in what’s really been a very substantial, very rapid growth in this technology area – actually, technology maturation, as probably many of your readers know. DoD has been working in the unmanned technology area for a long time. We can trace it strongly back as far as the conflicts with North Korea and North Vietnam. We had a number of unmanned aircraft systems that were used over both those countries for collection of intelligence data. Maturing technology in the last 15 years, such as highly reliable internal navigation systems that leverage Global Positioning System technology, has really allowed for the increased use of unmanned systems. It also is the development of robust communication architectures, both line-of-sight and especially satellite communication architectures. The final contributor to increased use in unmanned systems has been the rapid expansion of processor technology – commercial processor technology primarily – that allowed us to put significant autonomy into these unmanned systems at very reasonable costs. So, the combination of those three technologies has allowed the rapid development and fielding of unmanned capabilities on the operational side. It was also the strong warfighter desire for increased intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR] data collection, in many cases beyond the limits of what manned aircraft could achieve in terms of endurance or range. It’s been described in a number of different vernaculars, but certainly “persistent dwell, persistent surveillance,” is a term that is euphemistically used to define this capability.
What are the big-ticket items in your office right now that you are managing out of that $5 billion?
There are four or five major programs that account for probably 70 percent of the budget that we’re overseeing. Those programs are in the Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper, and MQ-1 Predator, along with the Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance [BAMS] system, and recently in the Army Extended Range Multi-Purpose UAS, or Sky Warrior, as the aircraft is called.
Some of these systems have been out there a long time, and we’re almost starting to think of Predator as a legacy system in some ways. How are you taking those mature systems and continuing to evolve them into new and emerging roles, missions, and capabilities?
One of the real values to the warfighter that I believe unmanned systems have been able to provide is the rapid evolution of those systems at a relatively low cost in a relatively short schedule. So, many of these systems have undergone two or three evolutions over the period of five or six years. I’ll use MQ-1 Predator as an example. When Predator was first fielded by the Air Force in the ’94-’95 timeframe, it had a fairly rudimentary ISR collection capability – full-motion video, or FMV, is the typical vernacular we use. The resolution of that system was only so-so; it had a minimal forward looking infrared [FLIR] imaging capability, so really didn’t have a tremendous nighttime capability. Predator also did not [initially] have a laser designation capability, so it didn’t have any weapons delivery capability. Also, the geo-location accuracy of that imagery was not such that you could do direct targeting off of it. You basically had to “walk” some other strike asset into the imagery and the operator of that system, typically an A-10 pilot, had to then eyeball the target to complete a strike.
Over the last 12 years or so, we’ve seen a tremendous evolution in Predator capability. The resolution of the imagery has improved phenomenally, both in the visible and infrared [IR] spectrums. The system now has full laser-designation capability, and it’s been “weaponized,” so it’s a strike platform in its own right. The geo-location accuracy of the imagery has improved astronomically, so now other targeting systems can use that imagery almost directly for targeting solutions. The operational capability has improved dramatically in terms of other areas like [data] encryption and satellite communication, along with other technical capabilities. While we’ve certainly seen an increase in the variety of unmanned systems, we’ve also seen a very rapid evolution into improving the capabilities of fielded systems and what they provide to the warfighter.
We’ve seen similar types of upgrades to the other systems you’ve talked about, the most recent one that I recall being the addition of the Gorgon Stare pod package for MQ-9 Reaper. Can you talk a bit about that please?
Exactly. The Air Force is demonstrating a number of new sensor capabilities for MQ-9. You’ve mentioned Gorgon Stare, which is just one of those. We’re also evaluating a signals intelligence [SIGINT] capability for the MQ-9, and some other technical solutions that provide unique capabilities that the warfighters require. Other platforms have undergone similar kinds of capabilities. The last several systems I’ve talked about have been at the high end of the capability. I would also like to mention that in unmanned warfare, we track everything that the department’s doing in unmanned systems, including down to the relatively small, inexpensive hand-launched unmanned aircraft systems like the RQ-11 Raven. Raven was an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program, the same development/acquisition program that bore both Predator and Global Hawk.
We’ve seen a phenomenal improvement in the Raven system. When it was first fielded, it didn’t have an IR collection capability, so it was a daytime-only system. It also had pretty limited endurance and it really didn’t have any other functional capabilities outside of a pretty shaky camera [system]. We’ve seen tremendous improvements, especially in its collection capabilities. We’ve also improved the resolution of its camera, and added [a nighttime] IR capability. We’ve also developed a digital data link for Raven, extended the endurance of the platform and improved some other technical capabilities. So, across the range of unmanned systems that DoD has provided the warfighters, we’ve seen very dramatic improvements in capability and numbers across the fleet.
Obviously “unmanned” covers a lot more than just things with wings. What are the big-ticket items that you’re seeing coming down the pike in the near term, which are not fixed-wing UASs?
In terms of budget, generally about 80 to 90 percent of the current unmanned systems funding is allocated to aircraft systems, primarily because aircraft are, relative to ground or maritime systems, expensive to develop and procure. Actually, in terms of total force structure, the Department of Defense has more ground systems than any other domain. We have over 10,000 unmanned ground systems of various sizes and configurations supporting our warfighters today. In many cases, those are fairly simple systems like PacBot that are somewhat analogous to Raven on the unmanned aircraft systems side. But in terms of the capability they provide to the warfighter and the lives they are saving today, they are truly revolutionary in what they provide. Before that, you literally had to put a human in harm’s way – for example, going into a cave or culvert, going to explore for a potential IED, or to penetrate a building to see what was in there. Today we have the luxury, if we choose, of doing that through an unmanned system that, if something bad happens, we send home a box of parts rather than a human being. I just can’t provide details here on all the revolutionary capabilities these systems are providing because the range is so broad. We tend to get focused in one domain, but the reality is the technology is evolving very, very quickly and the capabilities of these systems are evolving capabilities well beyond the traditional ISR mantra that most people equate with these systems.
One example I can think of is the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), in which each of the mission modules absolutely depends on unmanned systems to do their jobs, correct?
And with LCS, you’re talking about the full spectrum of air, surface, and subsurface unmanned systems being integrated into the various modules, correct?
What kind of progress have you been making on those LCS-based systems, like the Remote Mine-hunting System (RMS) and MQ-8 Fire Scout?
Some domains present really unique challenges for those developing unmanned systems. For example, submersible systems, underwater systems, really have a challenge with propulsion. Unlike airborne systems where we have a range in many cases of commercial off-the-shelf propulsion solutions, for some domains like the underwater domain, those propulsion systems are very purposefully designed for a specific application. The Remote Mine-hunting System, for example, has had some challenges. Another application package Littoral Combat Ship has is the MQ-8 Fire Scout, a rotary-wing unmanned helicopter. While DoD previously had the QH-50 DASH back in the ’60s, Fire Scout is really the first operationally reliable, unmanned aircraft system in a rotary-wing configuration that the department has had an opportunity to utilize. Again, that system is undergoing a rapid capability transformation as we speak. It is initially being fielded with basically a FMV sensor with both [day video and a night FLIR, along with] some fairly modest communications-relay capabilities. The next iteration is going to have a synthetic aperture radar attached to it with maritime moving target indicator [MTI] capabilities. The Navy is very interested in weaponizing that platform, too, to give it some “teeth,” along with a number of other specific capabilities that, again, I can’t go into.
We have seen, as you said earlier, an amazing growth in the range and numbers of systems in just the last 15 years. In the next 15 years, are we going to see the same kind of exponential growth from where we are today in the numbers and diversity of these systems in your mind?
That’s difficult to predict. If you had asked me 10 years ago whether DoD would have an inventory of over 6,000 unmanned aircraft, I probably wouldn’t have bet you much money on that. I think the future of unmanned systems, large unmanned aircraft specifically, will largely be driven by warfighter requirements. Close behind that, I think, will be affordability. One of the other significant advantages that unmanned systems have – generally, because one has to be careful, when doing an apples-to-apples comparison for specific mission capabilities – is that unmanned systems provide an equivalent capability at a fraction of the operating cost of legacy systems. For unmanned aircraft systems, they are typically replacing manned aircraft systems. For ground systems, we really don’t have equivalent capabilities, especially for the small systems. I think that continued and emerging warfighter requirements coupled with the cost advantages unmanned systems have will continue to drive development and diversity, and a likely increase in the unmanned force structure over what we have today.
Something that stunned me recently was that the 3rd Special Operations Squadron, the largest flying unit of UASs in the United States Air Force, flew more flight hours last year than all the manned aircraft in AFSOC combined. And last year, you bought more unmanned systems by far than DoD did manned systems. That’s got to be an amazing trend for someone like yourself who has been helping drive this.
I think much of the success of that has been the broad range of capabilities that unmanned systems provide, coupled with the diversity of systems that we have so that warfighters can get exactly the capabilities they need at a very reasonable cost, not only in acquisition costs but the sustainment costs. Granted, many of these unmanned systems are not multi-mission systems. They typically do one or two things very well. But those missions they do very, very well; and they do those at much reduced cost over multi-mission aircraft that, for example, can do a lot of things but the cost to do those missions is fairly high.
The upcoming Navy trials of the X-47 out on the Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) are being watched with a great deal of interest. How are the trials with the X-47 coming along, and do you feel like Northrop Grumman and the folks in the Navy have structured these trials in such a way that the technologies will be in place to go into development with high-performance, multi-mission UASs?
As you’re probably aware, the demonstration program that the Navy has for X-47 was really encouraged, directed, and funded by OSD. The goal of that program is to demonstrate the utility and the operational employment concepts of operating an unmanned aircraft system off a carrier. There were a few demonstrations of really niche capabilities off other surface combatants earlier over the last several decades, but nothing really that approached the potential capability set that unmanned combat air systems [UCAS] does. That being said, it’s only a demonstration. The Navy right now is determining its longer-range strategy for a whole range of unmanned systems, not just carrier-based UCASs. As with the other military services, the Navy is finding that unmanned options off a carrier present many opportunities, along, certainly, with some challenges.
There’s one quality that’s typically an advantage of unmanned systems, and that is very long endurance. Another is a relatively low signature, in some cases very low detection signatures, compared to other aircraft systems that we have today. Depending on what kind of operational environment you believe you’re going to be working in, whether that’s a near-peer or irregular warfare scenario, those attributes may be very important to you, or maybe not so much. Because of that, the Navy is also evaluating other kinds of less sophisticated options that also may operate off a carrier or a large amphibious ship that would provide roughly equivalent capabilities to what some of the other military services, Army and Air Force, have in their aviation arsenals today.
How are key supporting technologies and systems like sensors, data links, propulsion, structures, and such maturing, and are they opening new options for you as you consider the next generation of unmanned systems?
The answer to that is really dependent on the class of systems we’re operating. Let me very briefly start at the low end, typically, the Class 1 and Class 2 systems, the 0- to 56-pound class UASs; there we see great opportunity to leverage commercial developments and industry investments to DoD’s advantage. Ten years ago when DoD wanted to introduce a new small unmanned aircraft system, DoD really had to bear the full brunt and investment responsibility for those systems. Today, by and large, all we have to do is put out a solicitation with a set of goals and objectives and we get many potential industry partners coming to the table with designed and flown systems that really give DoD much greater opportunity. In that class of systems, we see great potential to leverage “other people’s money,” so to speak, to benefit DoD. As we work up in the class of capability to the high end, in those areas and especially in sensors and data links, really the investment burden is still primarily on DoD’s shoulders because those are very purpose-built designs, and they result in high-end capabilities. On the aircraft side, we can still in many cases leverage commercial development activities. As we really see commercial industries become more experienced in composite manufacturing, we see great benefits from that, at least on the structure side. In many cases, we can take advantage of propulsion investments that are also occurring on the commercial side.
Are you also able to partner up with other government agencies and departments, and gain some of their technology bases, like Homeland Security and the intelligence community?
Absolutely. We’re trying to do that more all the time. The reality of today is, because of DoD’s significant development and procurement budget, those other government agencies are in effect riding DoD’s coattails. More and more, we see as they gain operational experience, as they gain force structure with these unmanned systems, they are developing their own requirements and their budgets are increasing. That allows us to share investment dollars for common capabilities where they overlap.
In terms of upcoming challenges, where do you feel the bottlenecks are coming from? Are you running into any problems in terms of bandwidth concerns, for example with your satellite links? Are you going to have enough bandwidth, or are you going to have to go to civilian SATCOMs for leasing in heavy wartime environments, and situations like that?
Frequency and communications have been one of the challenge areas that DoD has identified for unmanned aircraft systems, but this is a challenge area for all unmanned systems, not just unmanned aircraft systems. However, DoD has been able to adapt, in some cases modify, our concept of operations. We continue to increase our unmanned systems force structure in some very focused geographic areas and still meet all our wartime requirements. For example, Afghanistan doesn’t have a huge commercial infrastructure market for commercial SATCOM, yet DoD has been able, with innovation and some forward planning, to continue to push a large number of unmanned aircraft systems into a fairly small geographic area and make that all work. Now, that has not come without some small challenges, and in some cases, we have had to modify concepts of operation slightly to work around those limitations. However, I can tell you that I don’t believe DoD has ever lost an operational sortie because we didn’t have bandwidth available to utilize. I think the real challenge becomes when we bring a large proportion of this force structure back home, and we have to integrate with all the other users of spectrum in the continental U.S. [CONUS] environment or in other overseas-deployed locations that have a high-end commercial user marketplace. We have to adjust to that. Again, we’ll have some challenges but I’m confident that we can find solutions.
After World War II, the Key West Conference was necessary to divide air power roles, missions, and systems among the services. Are the various services being good to each other, regarding unmanned systems?
At every level I work at, I can say unequivocally that each of the military services comes to the table as a joint warfighter provider. Their No. 1 priority is supporting the warfighter. In every case that I’m aware of, the military services have cooperated to the fullest extent to provide whatever the warfighter requirement has been. That does not mean that inside this building there is not ongoing, what I call “healthy debate,” on a number of acquisition and operational issues. I believe that makes DoD stronger, and that allows us to perfect both our acquisition strategy and our operational strategy and ensure we’re delivering the very best capability to the warfighter. I think everyone is doing very well.
What do you see the next generation of unmanned systems looking like? I’m talking across the full range here. What is it that will differentiate them from the current generation that we see? What, in your mind, will they do better, different, faster than the current ones?
I can say unequivocally that in the future, I don’t believe we will see the unmanned systems operating by themselves in any significant mission areas. I really believe that for every domain – for air, ground, and maritime – it’s really going to be the integration of manned and unmanned systems together that provides DoD the capabilities they need. So, it is not unmanned systems über alles. That being said, unmanned systems do provide much greater flexibility, especially for high-risk operations, than many manned systems do. It’s really defining warfighter requirements, and then identifying how we meet those warfighter requirements. I think you’ll see, as DoD continues to evolve, a real preference for unmanned systems to take on an increasing role in those very high-risk, highly lethal operational requirements that today, outside of a few ISR systems, we really rely on manned systems to achieve.
You talked a bit about the integration of personnel and the unmanned systems. How do you feel the personnel part of the force is adapting to this idea that they’re not necessarily going to be carrying the weapons themselves, or flying the airplane, or driving the boat anymore?
Just as we’ve seen a very rapid evolution in the technology area, I would argue that we’re seeing an equally rapid evolution in the cultural area among all the military services and U.S. Special Operations Command [SOCOM]. That being said, from my perspective, I believe each of the military services within their core capabilities is addressing that with the appropriate discipline and rigor, but also with a perspective that there probably is a better way, a better solution than we currently have now and they’re exploring those options. The Air Force has a program – they’ve just turned it from a pilot program to a mainstream program – for training unmanned aircraft systems (their vernacular for UASs is “Remotely Piloted Aircraft,”) pilots and associated payload/sensor operators. Five years ago, that wasn’t even on the table for the Air Force. I think we have to give great credit to the Air Force – that was a pretty significant cultural adaptation within the service. I believe they’re really moving out smartly.
The Army has a slightly different perspective, but is evolving their own concept of operations and training plans, also as they gain experience with their systems. The Navy is yet a third entity. My personal opinion is that SOCOM has probably endorsed and taken on the unmanned systems capability set better than anybody else has, mainly because they use everybody else’s good ideas. There’s less of a cultural imperative at SOCOM to conform to, so they’re a little more adaptable than the other military services. I really see all the services pushing hard to find a better solution than what we have today. Not that the current solutions are bad, just that there’s learning involved and we continue to evolve this capability. We need to evolve all the components of those systems.
What does the future of unmanned combat systems in the U.S. forces look like to you today?
As much as some people, especially some authors, want to paint we’re kind of headed for The Terminator environment in 20, or 30, or 40, or 50 years, I don’t see DoD going that way. I do see DoD continuing to find innovative solutions to meet warfighter requirements. I think we’ll continue to see the current capability we have evolve and get better. I think we’re also going to see new mission areas open up – one that looks highly promising is cargo resupply. For a number of reasons, that technology is just about to mature to where ISR capability was 10 years ago. I think we’re going to see a pretty significant increase in the more mundane and rudimentary capabilities in unmanned aircraft, but no less important to the warfighter, because if I can’t get beans and bullets and gas to where I need them, then I can’t operate effectively.
This article first appeared in the The Year in Summer 2010 Aerospace Edition.