Manned and Unmanned Teaming – Scaling New Frontiers 

Author: Lieutenant General VK Saxena, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

Period: October - December 2018

Lieutenant General VK Saxena, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)@ 


The widespread proliferation of the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in the combat domain  has brought in a paradigm change in the way the warfare is perceived and conducted on the battlefield. Starting from their humble beginnings of providing a “look see on the other side of the hill”, today the UAS have revamped many a battlefield functions, be it intelligence gathering, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance, battle damage assessment, contaminated area survey…. the list can go on.

Apart from all this, the most exciting dimension of the UAS has been their use in carrying out strike missions, either on their own or in concert with the manned platforms. The latter role is referred to as Manned and Unmanned Teaming or MUM-T for short.  It is in this dimension where  disproportionate gains  are being achieved by the skillful amalgamation of the intelligence, grit, determination, tolerance for ambiguity, instant decision making capability and more of the combat pilot with the tremendous range, reach, endurance and the weapon carrying capability of the so called “dull, dirty and the dangerous” UAS.  

The article examines various dimensions of MUM-T. In that it briefly visits the MUM-T timeline, presents an overview of the MUM-T scene the world over and how the enabling wings of technology are taking MUM-T to newer heights. In the end, a viewpoint is presented on how the MUM-T is likely to unfold in India and what needs to be done.

The Revolution

The advent of the unmanned machines in the battlefield has been nothing short of a revolution simply because of the multiple capabilities they offer. The attackers are exploiting many a combat virtues of the so called Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in terms of their long range and altitude capability, tremendous endurance, all weather all terrian operability, weapon carriage capability  which can give a run for their money to the manned aerial platforms. All this at the cost of no risk of crew fatalities a continuum of task spectrum, that extends from surveillance to intelligence gathering, to battle damage assessment ,to control and direction of fire, contaminated area reconnaissance…. the list can go on.  This is when one is not counting the possibilities of operation of the UAs in the civil domain which actually is limited by ones imagination alone or the combat and strike capabilities of the UAS.

        Talking of the combat capabilities, there is an emerging concept called the  Manned and Unmanned Teaming or MUM-T for short. This concept basically relates to that win-win situation in which the human genius of a combat pilot, his tolerance for ambiguity, hunch, intuition, experience, instant decision making capability and more, is amalgamated with the brute lethality, long endurance, needle-like precision and all-terrain and all-weather capability of the modern day UAS in joint missions. This concept is fast catching up across the leading nations of the world since the initial results show multiplicative and disproportionate gains, albeit not without many a challenge; some operational, some ethical.

        This article examines the emergence of MUM-T over the years and brings the reader up to date with the cutting edge developments in this field.

The MUM-T Timeline 

Going back on the timeline shows that not exactly MUM-T, but something remotely close to it, happened way back in World War II when a B-17 Flying Fortress of the Royal Air Force (RAF) started as a manned mission to bomb a submarine bunker in Germany. After achieving a cruising altitude of 20,000 ft and arming the explosives the two-pilot crew parachuted into the English Channel letting the aircraft fly to its intended target as a robot. Though the mission failed but with it, a step-cousin of MUM-T passed into evolution that would tickle the minds of inventors in the years to come1.

        As the time rolled by, the power of the unmanned continued to prove its unmatched utility as the ‘Dull, Dirty and Dangerous’ machines, credited with many operational virtues, proliferated more and more in the opetraional domain. Soon the debate on manned versus unmanned became irrelevant and subject matter
experts started to look at the ‘AND’ solutions instead of ‘OR’ solutions.

        The earliest reports came in of the joint exercises between AH64 D/E Guardian being paired with UAS like the MQ1 Grey Eagle (a derivative of MQ1 Predator) and RQ7B Shadow UAS. Similar exercises were reported using BEL OH 58 Kiowa helicopter being paired in joint exercises with several different UAS2.

MUM-T  Today

Cutting straight across to 2015, there is an account by an attack helicopter (AH) battalion commander stating that in the Afghanistan war, some 60 per cent of the direct fire missions were helped out by MQ1C Grey Eagle drones enabling Apache crews to see full-motion videos of the areas they were flying into or the enemies they were sent to attack, well before they reached their destinations3.

        Today’s MUM-T enablement not only allows the pilot in the manned platform to view the videos generated by the unmanned machine, but also enables him to control its sensors and its flight path and permits him to fire the weapons carried on board the UAS4. This is a phenomenal enablement. Not only restricted to helicopter-UAS teaming, things are moving ahead in trying to achieve MUM-T using combat aircraft and UAS5. Reports of the F35 joint strike fighter being capable of controlling the sensors and payloads of nearby UAS or even a swarm of UAS are doing the rounds6.

MUM-T the World Scene

While the above MUM-T examples are generally related to USA, open sources tell us that MUM-T as a concept, is fast taking shape in other nations leading in aerospace power and dominance. Some examples are as under :-

(a)   According to a report, while Russia wraps up its development on the Sukhoi T50 PAK FA fifth generation stealth fighter, it is exploring concepts in the MUM-T domain. Reportedly, the PAK FA will have modifications so as to make it MUM-T capable. Also, reports are already pouring in of future generation Russian aircraft designs (sixth generation and beyond likely to be realisable in the timeframe of 2030-2035) which will all be MUM-T capable. Where is the doubt that MUM-T will see many a grade of future up- gradation in the machines yet to come?7

(b)   In 2014, M/s Finmeccanica completed a capability concept demonstration for a rotary wing UAS for the UK MoD exhibiting launch, recovery, mission management and mission system integration with manned platforms.8

(c)   China is also gearing up in the MUM-T domain in a big way, though specific information is scanty in the open source domain.

The Concept of LOI

Connected intrinsically with MUM-T is the concept of LOI or the level of Interoperability between manned and unmanned platforms. Classified through grades 1 to V, the LOI tells us just how much the manned and unmanned platforms are interoperating with each other and one another. Starting with the bottom line of LOI 1 – where only the ground control station (GCS) can receive the UAS data indirectly (implying time delayed verbal reports), the interoperating levels are scaled up in steps. LOI II – refers to a real time payload feed. LOI III relates to the actual control of the payload (sensors/weapons) on board the UAS. In LOI Level IV – the manned platform is in total control of the UAS except its launch and recovery while at LOI – V even that function is in the hands of the manned platform. The current level of MUM-T operations is hovering between LOI IV and V.9

MUM-T on the Enabling Wings of Technology

MUM-T as a viable concept is fast acquiring new dimensions as many new things are being tried and newer windows of opportunities being opened through comprehensive technological enablement. Some examples are as under :-

(a)   When manned and unmanned systems are threaded into joint missions, the cockpit workload of the pilot increases manifold since the man-in-the-loop is now to control multiple machines, some directly and others indirectly. Technology is at play to reduce this workload saturation by letting the UAS do things without pilot interface by building suitable AI suits. These could include maintaining a threshold surveillance level activity as default and auto-reporting variations in levels, picking up targets as forward scouts based on threat library data, fully autonomous flying to destinations, keeping stations based on pre-fed data, auto battle damage assessment and more. The idea is, that the pilot manages the multiple UAS payload only by ‘exception’ where either a human decision interface is required or a manual override is needed in case of forcing a change or averting an emergency.10 Over time, smart algorithms and AI suites will gradually permit many more battle functions to be taken on by UAS without human intervention. Tasks like mission planning (processing with givens), data collection and analysis are cases in point.  For better interoperability and to avoid collisions while operating in the same airspace in real time, the best of the line capability is being built into unmanned systems. In 2016, General Dynamics experimented with the idea of fitting a state-of-the-art active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar on board its MQ9 Predator. Such high-end sensors will not only be ideal for aiding collision avoidance, but also, will provide capabilities for independent targeting of incoming threats, hunting for potential targets and their selection based on AI suite on board, duly complemented by a dynamically updated threat library. Such systems could also be suitable platforms for ELINT and even act like jammers on demand.11

(b)   In line with the thought of UAS to be independent platforms for the end-game, their weaponisation started long back. AIM 9X Sidewinders, AIM 120 AMRAAMs and AGM 88 ARMs are now mountable on front-end UAS platforms like MQ-9 Predators or M2 Shadow.

(c)   In the early days of MUM-T, integration between two dissimilar machines (UAS and manned platform) was achieved by engineering an audio visual (AV) communication link that forged a hand-shake of data and video. Technology has taken us a step ahead in which a common data link (CDL) ab-initio provides a common bridge threading a large number of dissimilar platforms for a seamless highway of data sharing. The CDL has built-in security protocols and encryption. The high-end modems provide adequate bandwidth, giving a capability of streaming full motion videos and pictures in real time. The communication and data link that used to be engineered to provide the interoperability to the requisite LOI level is now coming in-built in the MUM-T suite.

(d)   Besides the interface between two aerial platforms, MUM-T has long been happening between the UAS and soldiers and commanders on the ground in the tactical battle area (TBA). As a part of CDL extension, the ground users are getting equipped with such tools that allow them to connect with the UAS for multiple tasks based on authorisations and protocols. It could be simply to request for a motion video relating to terrain of interest or an authorisation to take control of the electro optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors on board the UAS thus getting the capability to build situational awareness in a directed mode.

        Far ahead of just being in network contact, the MUM-T task spectrum is steadily widening as new avenues in mutual enablement are being thought of and practised in joint exercises. A snapshot…

(a)   In joint target engagements, manned and unmanned machines are sharing target accessibility co-ordinates through imagery, sensor data, situational map overlays and real-time spot reports. Complementary weapon and munitions selection is ensuring maximum multiplicative effect at the target end and auto de-conflicted munitions trajectories from multiple airframes are bringing in a degree of safety.

(b)   Auto sharing of post-strike imagery in real time is permitting decision of repeat strike.

(c)   Enhanced observation and situational awareness envelope is being ensured through gridding the multiple sensors on board fused for multi-sensor tracking (MST) so as to avoid duplication in reporting of the same target by multiple sensors.

        When the MUM-T concept was just about evolving, the ‘teaming’ per se was essentially between the pilot on board the combat aircraft and the UAS controller at the GCS. Technology-driven, there is a gradual shift taking place in this arrangement in that as the UAS are steadily achieving more and more autonomy in launch/recovery, navigation, observation and sensor/weapon/ EW operations they are getting more and more disconnected from the GCS. The connect is now happening increasingly between the combat pilot and the ‘resources on board the UAS’ (the human-machine interface) gradually working to a state where the UAS will be totally independent of the GCS and will act as a force-multiplier tool in the hands of the combat pilot.

MUM-T the Ethical Dimension

While all the advantages of MUM-T stand on one side, on the other stands the solitary question—‘Is the world yet ready for Machine over Man?’ measured on the scale of the ever-increasing autonomy for the unmanned platform. The questions that stare us today actually lie in the ethical domain. Some of these run on the following lines:-

(a)   Can the unmanned machine be given the autonomy to strike on a target it has identified, based on its AI suite and threat library?

(b)   In an end-game sequence, can a UAS be given self-authorisation to re-strike in case its sensors give a miss or inadequate kill feedback?

(c)   Can a UAS be allowed to leave the formation, albeit for a brief period, in order to take on an identified target of opportunity?

(d)   Can an unmanned machine lead a MUM-T mission? (this lead is not implying a scout role but a proper command lead)

        The present-day answer to all these and more is an emphatic NO as the manned community is firmly fixed on ‘seek permission before every strike’ and the invariable override function of ‘Man-in-the-Loop’ across board. Well, this is the position as of today, but who has seen tomorrow? Concepts and mindsets may change, who knows? Time has the key!

MUM-T in India

We have indeed come a long way in our nearly two-decade old journey when the Indian Army in 1997-98 acquired the Searcher Mark 1 UAS from IAI Malat to be quickly followed by the other two Services. Over time, came the Searcher Mark II and the Heron UAS. However, all these have been dedicated to very basic and traditional UAS roles encompassing surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions from the northern and eastern high altitude areas to the southern deserts (DRDO UAS products not covered). the following open source reports are interesting.

(a)   The Defence Acquisition Council in its meeting on 25 June 2016 has cleared the acquisition of 40 Predator surveillance drones from the US company, M/s General Atomics. These drones are meant for the Indian Navy for surveillance tasks in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)12,13.

(b)   The Indian Express reported on 8 April 2016 that the IAF has also asked Washington about acquiring 100 Predator C UAS to carry out strikes on militant camps.14

(c)   The Economic Times reported on 28 September 2015 that India and the USA have signed a USD 3 bn deal for the purchase of 22 AH 64 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from M/s Boeing.15 This is Apache Block III configuration; stealthy, versatile, designed for all kinds of missions with laser and infra-red systems for day-night operability and armed adequately with Hellfire missiles, 70mm rockets and an automatic cannon.

        What does all the above indicate? Surely and steadily we are going into platforms that can support the emerging concepts like the MUM-T.

        That said, MUM-T does not happen overnight. Concepts have to be evolved, network-centric communications on the lines of CDL have to be developed step-by-step that bridge the divide between the UAS and the AH seamlessly, critical skill-sets have to be identified and crews have to be trained both in the manned and the unmanned domain and specific battle drills have to be perfected over years and years of training. And what position do we have on the ethical baggage ? That indeed is a long haul.

        Be that as it may, the author is of the view that it is high time to commence building the conceptual framework for MUM-T operations. Think tanks like the Centre for Joint Warfare/Land Warfare/Air Warfare Studies (CENJOWS/CLAWS/CAPS) could start putting in place the thought process duly supported by the three Services, defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs), DRDO and the industry. Services training schedules could subsequently get re-structured over time to accommodate new concepts and doctrines. Once baby steps are taken, the pace will build up in the years to come.

        Going by the cliché—The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.


1 http://www.armyaviationmagazine.com >archive 5. Accessed on 11 Dec 2018.

2 http://www.wp.nlr/…/onbemand-vliegtuig-rpasuas-veilig. Accessed on 11 Dec 2018.

3 http://ww.flightglobal.com. Accessed on 11 Dec 2018

4 http://ww.flightglobal.com. Accessed on 11 Dec 2018

5 http://www.breaking defense.com>2015/01.mum-t Accessed on 11 Dec  2018

6 http://www.tge diplomat.com.2015/05.will-f35-pilots-command-a-swarm of-drones-in-flight Accessed on 11 Dec 2018

7 http://www.nationalinterest.org> blog.the buzz> revealed-russia’s-lethal-seventh-genetaion fighter-jets. Accessed on 13 Dec 2018

8 http://www.plz.swidnik.pl>uk-mod-rwuas-capability. Accessed on 13 Dec 2018

9 http://www.cdlsystems.com>VCSlevels-of-interoperability. Accessed on 13 Dec 2018.

10 http://www.mil-embedded.com.mum-t.us-army-uas-roadmap-2016-35. Accessed on 13 Dec 2018

11 http://IHS Janes Defence Weekly, Volume 50, Issue 34.

12 South Asia Defence Strategic Review, Volume 10, Issue 3, Jul-Aug 2016

13 Defence ProAc Biz News, Volume IV, Issue 3, May-Jun 2016

14 http://www.indianexpress.com.india-in-talks-to-buy-us-predator-drones. Accessed on 13 Dec  2018

15 http://www.economictimes.indiatimes.com. Accessed on 13 Dec 2018.

@Lieutenant General VK Saxena, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is a former Director General of the Corps of Army Air Defence. He is a Distinguished Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation.

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXLVIII, No. 614, October-December 2018.


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