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With more technologically advanced UAVs flying than ever, military leaders are starting to rethink the way they look at air superiority. The case is especially relevant for the U.S. Marine Corps, which are often the first U.S. force to face UAV threats on foreign soil. In the past, air superiority included controlling the skies above the ground or water on or through which forces intended to operate. Now, however, with UAVs operating at all different heights and depths, that kind of thinking is proving to be inadequate.

“There are different kinds of layers for air superiority,” Lt. Col. Noah Spataro, the UAV Capabilities Integration/Requirements officer for the Fires and Maneuver Integration Division in the Capabilities Development Directorate (CDD) at Marine Corps Combat Development Command told “We have to think in multi-domains and consider what’s operating in those domains. It changes the mindset of how we approach those layers of defense”.

It’s not only the ubiquitous nature of the UAVs that’s confusing the U.S. military planners, but also the advanced technology being developed for the vehicles.

For example, some UAVs are relying on communication methods other than traditional data links, making them harder to locate. “You can at least detect a data link,” Spataro says. “What if that changes? What does that mean? It is that much harder to identify that object in the air.”

But technological advancements cut both ways. The U.S. is looking for improvements, from the military and commercial worlds, to make UAVs a more effective tactical tool. “Autonomy, in general, is going to be the biggest gamechanger,” Spataro says. “If you look at taking the normal tasks that an operator has to do, you’re seeing more and more automation is making those tasks simpler. A simple example is a takeoff checklist for the aircraft itself, ground control stations will able to go through preflight checklist themselves. That’s a very simple example of where autonomy is taking us.”

Or, consider technology that allows better operation without datalinks. “Then automation allows you to do a whole lot more. That’s where in the long term or even in not too distant future – you’re going to see levels of autonomy, especially around the battlefield, to do things we could not do otherwise.”

One of the big hurdles the military must overcome is developing systems, often based on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology without breaking the bank and trying to weed out proprietary parts. “The products that are offered to us, oftentimes have proprietary components,” Spataro says. “And when you pair a proprietary object or product it may be not compatible with other military systems.”

It can especially be difficult, he says, when trying to form command links or string together command and control systems. When using a targeting system and a tablet or other handheld device, he says, “The software on them has to quickly integrate with anything. When we make a decision to buy a product, it has to be interoperable with other programs that already exist (in the force),” he says.