As I have written before, properly implementing modularity—either to allow easy upgrades or to use one platform for multiple missions—is not as easy as many assume. For example, the Littoral Combat Ship’s multiple mission modules never really panned out as expected, with the platform having been delayed, over budget, and breaking down. Now, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is pursuing a new vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drone that will use module payloads. Unlike the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), however, this drone—called the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES)—might be able to benefit from modularity. The difference lies in how the modules relate to the overall mission.
Different Modules, Same Mission
For DARPA’s new project, a flying frame will be able to lift and transport a variety of payloads. The system could move cargo, sensor payloads, a medevac system, or even—at least in the promotional video—vehicles. While all of these payloads can do different things, the mission of the drone itself remains the same: transportation. This simplifies the design of the flying frame. It’s requirements are to be able to take off and land in difficult terrain, carry a pod of a certain weight, and be maneuvered remotely or autonomously.
How does this differ from the troubled LCS program? The ship’s modules were not only different in themselves, but also asked different things from the ship. The complex engine system installed on the LCS to give it high-speed capability not only made the ship difficult to maintain for the smaller crews, but did not overlap well with the ship’s mine-sweeping or submarine-hunting requirements. The LCS’s fast attack mission needed the speed, but the original focus on speed may have conflicted with later needs for more warfighting capabilities to counter conventional high-end threats from Russia and China.
The LCS ran into problems because the various missions required fundamentally different ships. In focusing on producing a jack-of-all-trades, the Navy wound up with a ship that was a master of none. The argument was that the plug-and-play modular system would save money, but the Navy has had to pursue an upgraded version of the LCS to provide some of the capabilities missed in the first rendition—and that upgraded model may have its own issues.
The ARES drone does not currently seem to have that same problem. But there are risks that the system could experience mission-creep during development and run into future problems. If the system moves forward into acquisitions, the temptation to add on secondary missions will be high. But those secondary missions, perhaps some form of combat capability for example, may well produce a LCS situation in which neither the original purpose nor the secondary capability is fully met.
Stay on Task
A remote, or autonomous, system that can transport needed equipment over rugged terrain to dispersed units would be a highly useful capability. Its unmanned nature makes it usable even in contested environments where piloted supply missions might be restricted. With a large enough flying distance, ARES could allow the Army and Marines to spread soldiers over a wider space while maintaining their mobility. Diluting that transportation mission with others, or diluting other missions with ARES’s transportation mission, would be a mistake.