In February, I wrote on how the Army had come up with a creative solution to one of its aviation problems. Facing a deficit of attack helicopters, the Army decided to tether a new version of the Apache with Grey Eagle drones. The Army is already boasting about the capabilities the new manned-unmanned teams (MUM-Ts) bring to the field. While it has yet to be seen how cost-efficient this new approach is over time, the novel use of drones in the battlefield might be inspiring to others. Now the Navy wants to get involved as well, bringing in its own version of MUM-Ts.

Anyone following the evolution of the Navy’s unmanned MQ-XX Stingray (formerly CBARS and UCLASS) knows that there has been an ongoing debate about what exactly its mission will be and whether or not it will be armed. While it finalized the Stingray as an unmanned carrier-based refueling plane, the Navy certainly had opportunities to allow the unmanned platform the ability to be upgraded and altered in the future. Now, barely after the conversation about whether the Stingray would be initially armed has finished, the Navy is rolling out how it might connect the drone to F-35s and E-2s.

The Navy suggested that Stringrays could be tasked to a F-35 to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aspects of a mission as well as carrying extra fuel for the F-35 (which is important, given the F-35’s short range). Rear Admiral Michael Manazir suggested that as many as three Stingrays could be wingmen for one manned plane. Manazir said that this could allow the Navy to increase the combat spacing between F-35s from 25 miles to 100 miles.

This pursuit of manned-unmanned teams by the Army and Navy could have large implications for defense acquisitions, operations, and presence. The use of such teams would expose American servicemen and women to less risk, allowing the unmanned parts of the team to take on more dangerous and/or tedious parts of a mission. If realized, this capability would allow a more distributed and lethal battlegroup while also reducing the overall need for manned platforms.

The use of manned ‘motherships’ controlling unmanned platforms could also allow quicker upgrades for the unmanned parts of the team. Given the lack of risk to human operators for these systems, they could be prototyped, testing, and deployed quicker than manned systems. While the manned systems might take longer to develop upgrades for, the overall network could keep better pace with changing technology.

Overall then, the use of manned-unmanned teams may allow greater American presence around the globe. The argument has been made that presence helps strengthen deterrence, so the boosting presence could be a good thing. Instead of needing an increase in manpower to counter future risks and threats, the Pentagon could more effectively distributed its manpower with these mixed teams.

There are, of course, obstacles in developing and implementing these unmanned-manned teams. Questions need to be answered about how the systems link to each other. F-35 pilots tasking a Stingray to undertake surveillance during peacetime will be very different than if that pilot has to concentrate on incoming enemy units. The technology has to be tested, and the units will have to make sure that the communications between the platforms do not give away the location of the teams. In terms of development, the current acquisition system means that the Pentagon has to approve of services’ experiments. The Department of Defense, or Congress, might prevent further testing if they are unconvinced of the benefits of such teams.

The Navy’s acceptance of these unmanned-manned systems has, in part, come out of a need to develop new ways of approaching old problems. Budget constraints forced the Navy to scrap its plans to turn the unmanned plane into a strike platform and turn it into an unmanned tanker. The tanker version could be developed at a lower cost and would allow the Navy to buy more F-35s and other needed planes. The need to then integrate the tanker into the airwings, and to justify its existence, is likely also behind the Navy’s push to create its unmanned-manned teams.

Necessity, then, is still giving birth to invention. The budgetary constraints on the services are forcing them to think about innovative solutions to the problems it faces. Congress and the Department of Defense could use these budget constraints, as well as increased permission to experiment, to encourage further military innovation.