Northrop Grumman's Plan To Replace The MQ-9 Reaper With Stealthy Autonomous Drones

We talk to Northrop Grumman Vice President Richard Sullivan about what his company has potentially in store for the Air Force's MQ-Next tender. 

SG101 Aviation Week Cover
Kent Rump—© Northrop Grumman Corporation 2020

In the 2000s, semi-autonomous unmanned air combat vehicle (UCAV) technology was proving to be the greatest revolution in air combat since the jet engine, then it disappeared totally from the Air Force plans and nomenclature. It was as if the idea of stealthy, long-range drones simply never existed. Now, as the U.S. faces growing threats from peer state competitors with highly capable integrated air defense systems, environments in which the Air Force's current fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones cannot survive, the UCAV has suddenly become the next big item on the Air Force's shopping list. 

Dubbed the MQ-Next, the exact requirements for the Air Force's next-generation combat drone initiative remain undefined, but the service has reached out to its industry partners to see what they have to offer. Northrop Grumman, a company known for its low-observable (stealth) design capabilities and its bright history with advanced unmanned systems—namely the X-47 demonstrators and the RQ-4 Global Hawk—has thrown their hat in the ring for what will be an emerging highly-lucrative tender in the coming years. 

With that in mind, Richard Sullivan, a Vice President of Program Management at Northrop Grumman, talked in-depth with The War Zone not just about their own potential drone offerings under the MQ-Next initiative, but also about their shadowy Distributed Autonomy Responsive Control (DARC) advanced mission management system that aims to control not just the MQ-Next vehicles, but what will be a family of interconnected unmanned systems that will rule the skies in the not so distant future. 

What Sullivan describes in our discussion is exactly what the author posited half a decade ago, down to the platform-agnostic command and control software that will control future autonomous swarms and the other assets that will enable them. You can read all about that, as well as a deep examination of the mysterious disappearance of the UCAV from the Air Force's portfolio around 2010 and the massive implications of that reality in this past War Zone feature. In fact, to understand the potential UCAVs offer and what MQ-Next truly represents, it really is a must-read.

With that being said, let's get to our peek behind the curtain of MQ-Next and into the future of air combat with Richard Sullivan:

RS:  You would be quite familiar with the platforms that are out there today if you've been staring at the unmanned environment. And you know what, I'll say, I think the platforms that are out there have been meeting the challenges of today. But with, I'll say the 2018 NDS [National Defense Strategy] and the potential adversaries, what's out there today does have to adapt and it does have to change.

What we see in the different contractual things going on is the customer looking at this continuum of, from bringing mass to the fight with Loyal Wingman concepts, as well as the high-end platform for these highly contested environment scenarios. We've got the Indo-Pacific region with the tyranny of distance. So how do you... Is that one platform? We don't think so. We see it as a family of platforms that are gonna be solving these specific customer needs... 

DARC is really the foundation of adaptive autonomy that we've been working on, and this DARC technology integrates into things that you hear today about open mission systems and the OMS architecture. And one of the things that DARC does is it is able to build upon and do the flight management, sensor management, across a heterogeneous system of systems. 

What does that mean? 

So, DARC will optimize from an advanced mission management perspective, the mission effectiveness with all the assets that it has. And each of the assets could be different. So heterogeneous, meaning you can have different platforms with different platform performance with different sensors and different sensor performance, but what you do is you give it an objective.

You say, "Hey, I want you to image this area," and then you let the computer do what it does best, which is to optimize that parametric. So given these different variables, you optimize it with the variables you have. That's really what DARC does.

Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman's DARC control room Lab. 

Now focusing on the MQ-Next response, which I know you're very interested in. We've just provided insight on what we could do. And this was only an RFI at the time, but we just highlighted that, given whatever the customer's emerging requirements are, we're going to look at this with affordability in mind.

Our company really prides itself on survivability and aspects of survivability. Understanding the mission set that has to do with the Indo-Pacific region, so range and endurance are key. How the mission sensors are just continuing to get better over time. Just like everything that we have, whether it's our iPhone, our cars, all the capability, and sensor capability, is advancing over time. With this OMS architecture, we can have that, I'll say that easy, or easier, adaptation of those sensors to these modern platforms.

It's all underpinned by having that adaptive smarts on board, which is DARC, which we talked about for a little bit. And how do we know that we have the right solutions? And really, it comes down to... Most of us are completely, I'll say ingrained with this digital engineering, and how we can do modeling and simulation, and bring a lot of the troubleshooting and the fact-finding to the left.

Through rigorous modeling and simulation, through operational analysis, we fly the platforms to validate the analysis, and then we can start working in the analytical domain, that we can show how a family of platforms can inherently work together to solve missions and objectives.

TR: That's an incredibly succinct take on it. It's so crazy because I literally wrote this five years ago, and down to the battle management system and everything else. It's exciting that your team is putting putting forward a nearly identical playbook... I noticed in your imagery that you guys provided to Aviation Week... That it shows an X-47B-like cranked-kite type of low-observable platform. Is that something you think is still valid going into this MQ-Next tender in the coming years? 

RS: Yeah, so there was a pretty good investment to find the right solution for the X-47B for what it needed to do, and so when you think about also what it was able to prototype, it prototyped aerial refueling, it prototyped what I would consider one of the most complex takeoff and landings that could ever be humanly imagined, on a carrier deck of a moving aircraft carrier... And by the way, that was, I'll say the beginnings of DARC. That type of autonomy is what underpins DARC. And at the end of the day, Tyler, what we have to look at is, what is the customer asking for? So if they end up not asking for something that has to have as low of a signature [stealthiness], it may not look exactly the same.

But we feel pretty confident, and I think we're pretty good at our operational analysis and our mission engineering from the talent that we have, the talent that we've grown, that we feel like something that has survivability features like you see in the graphic is going to be something that's very important for, in particular that highly contested environment. And then you couple that with... Then the size of the platform gives you range and payload constraints.

So, we're really ready to adapt. It could look different, but what we tried to do was provide the customer just some ideas, and making them feel like we're not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel, we're trying to leverage that government investment and the technology, and I think it enables us to be, have an advantage from that perspective.

DoD

X-47B high over Edwards AFB.

TR: And I find it extremely troubling that they have to reinvest... Where are they now, the X-47Bs? Are they just sitting in Palmdale, or are you guys still using them for tests, like risk reduction work? Does the Navy own them? What's the deal there? 

RS: Well, I'll say we can probably give you a heck of a lot more information later on, but Northrop Grumman now owns the two X-47Bs. And we have them in Palmdale, yes.

TR: So, they probably would be very valuable to prove this technology and show that the risk is quite low. Would that be a good assumption? 

RS: With respect to... Are you saying with respect to autonomy or with respect to MQ-Next? So with respect to autonomy, I think...

TR: I think both, right? It seems like a very similar platform to what you guys are proposing.

RS: With MQ-Next, just as I said earlier, the big thing is the customer still has to come out with their requirements, so as we're trying to share with them, "Hey, these are the things we think you need to do," they're going to come back and tell us, and that's when we, I'll say when we align it.

Is it [the X-47B] a prototype for autonomy? Absolutely. Just as our HALE-ISR platforms are prototypes for what does it mean to have something on station working for a long time. Our experience with the B-2 too. We are end-to-end on the B-2, design, all the way to operations, all the way to sustainment.

When they're talking about striking something in denied airspace, in a highly contested environment, we've got the tools there for that as well. Is that what they're looking for? We're not exactly sure yet. Right? So we're kind of able to leverage across these multiple spaces, and then going back to that digital engineering, I can't emphasize how important it is to have that, say, those validated and trusted algorithms, those validated models. So that we can respond to it with the most effective solution. 

And I'll just say, and you said something that I wanna say, is we wouldn't be... You could imagine we wouldn't be charging the government again for something that if they wanted exactly an X-47, the program would be cheap as heck. But as a customer, it has requirements that differ from that. One that's best as a Navy carrier landing vehicle. If the Air Force doesn't need that, we wouldn't wanna make them pay for that. And so it all depends on what the customer comes out with, at the end of the day.

AP

A B-2 does a flyby above another B-2 during a ceremony at Northrop's sprawling complex at Plant 42 in Palmdale, California. The firm has an amazing pedigree when it comes to cutting-edge stealth aircraft design that dates back to Tacit Blue in the early 1980s. 

TR: In regards to the DARC system, it is meant to be distributed where? Is the command and control happening on each platform? Or is it happening in a centralized manner and then you're sending data to tell these platforms what to do? What's the architecture that Northrop Grumman envisions? 

RS: Well, I'll just say the exact architecture is something that you know I won't be able to share, but it is... The acronym does stand for Distributed Autonomy Responsive Control, and what that does is there is some autonomy that is placed upon each of the platforms. So the platforms become independent to the... I'll just say the dependency on comms-links, it becomes independent on the dependency of, I'll say a changing threat environment.

The threat could be IADS [integrated air defense system], it could be even harsh weather. So as the environment's changing, we're able to have adaptation. Of course, when the comms-links are in place, each vehicle will have, as you said, the data of what each vehicle is doing, as well as the mission management, the mission commander is gonna have that data at their fingertips as well...

The autonomy is distributed amongst the entire architecture... And the key thing about DARC is it's not about a commander who is controlling every step of the battle. It literally is, "Go and perform this objective," within, we call it the Objective and Constraints Model.

You give a constraint of, "This is what the aircraft is able to do, what it's able to fly, this is where you're able to fly, these are the constraints," those constraints are given to each of the distributed vehicles. And the platforms are then given I'll say scenarios where comms is out, GPS or whatever's out, they can work within those constraints themselves as well. And one of the constraints may be, "Don't go back home, go back to your other buddies, reconnect to your line of sight link," and let's make sure that force package is re-registered with themselves. And then that... Yeah.

Northrop Grumman

MQ-X concept art is just that, an idea of what it could be. Hard requirements don't exist for the program at this time. 

TR: I wrote the manual to this thing five years ago! It's actually very exciting that you guys are talking about all this now, so openly, it's great. Are these higher-end penetrating drones, UCAVs, whatever you want to call them, part of a family of systems?

Are you seeing HALE [High-Altitude, Long-Endurance] drones involved as well? Are you seeing loyal wingman style drones that are attritable [optionally expendible] as part of this larger architecture that you want to build out and supply the Air Force? Or is it more like just two platforms right now, and then we'll look at the larger architecture as we go? 

RS: No, no, it's absolutely as you said. It is, we're looking at a continuum, so it's a continuum of platforms that is the most effective to solve the problem. Now there's always the case of the economics, and so how we can best provide the customer with an overall affordable solution that may leverage across the entire platform space.

If sensors are common, if the engines are common, if the digital underpinnings are common, we can leverage across the larger tradable space all the way to HALE UAS type of platforms. And how do they all work together? So that's a key thing is we may not have, I'll say DARC implemented in an existing platform, although we could, but what happens is the data coming back to the mission management, to that mission commander goes back up through that mission commander.

So, the mission commander, the mission management becomes a node for which I'll say current systems that may or may not have or do not have DARC on them yet, would be able to be part of this overall architecture.

AP

F-22's fly in tow of a B-2. A big hurdle going forward will be integrating existing types into an increasingly automated battlespace and command and control architecture. 

TR: Some of them would be fully integrated, they have the DARC on board, and then others would be working... You'd still be getting all that intelligence from them, you'd still be getting some datalink information, but maybe they're not cooperative 100% with the rest of the DARC equipped fleet. Is that how you can tie in legacy platforms to this? 

RS: Yeah, I think and... That's probably a fair way to put it. What I would say is, we're gonna be able to optimize the architecture based on the type of control we have with each of the vehicles. So there's gonna be some vehicles that have better control, like I'm not really a Mac guy, but my understanding is my wife's a Mac person, her phone and her iWatch and her MacBook and all that, they all work as an ecosystem really well together.

And I can still tie into it with my Android phone and all that kinda stuff, and it's just not as efficient. But it's not that I'm less efficient, I can't tell that I'm less effective. She feels like I am, [chuckle] but in reality, is the information that I need to send is something that's already likely in place. So how can we use that information, and it's just the command and control that goes through its legacy path? 

So you can still optimize each of these different paths, but it is maybe not as advanced, the smart systems that we want to put in place really is, I'll say coming to being today. And you highlighted some of the things that you indicated from the X-47B time frame. Some of those things are things that we're ready to go forward with today, and it looks like the customer is really interested in it now.

Author's note: A big thanks to Richard Sullivan for taking the time to share his thoughts on MQ-Next and more, as well as our gratitude to Daniel Hazard for arranging the Q&A.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com