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An artist rendering of a swarming concept of operations in an anti-access, area-denial environment. Air Force illustration.

​The Air Force on Tuesday unveiled its flight path for small, unmanned aircraft systems, drones smaller than Predators and Reapers that the service expects to take over as its dominant means of surveillance. “What we’re saying today is we do believe small unmanned aircraft systems will be the cornerstone of Air Force ISR,” Lt. Gen Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for USAF Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, said in unveiling the SUAS Flight Plan: 2016–2036. The Air Force’s current fleet of remotely piloted aircraft is falling drastically short of the unrelenting need for more ISR, so the service needs to look at creative ways to make up the gap. In the future, this will be small-scale RPAs with miniaturized sensors, like those on the bigger aircraft. These will be more autonomous, cheaper, and work alongside other RPAs and manned aircraft in what the service plans to be the Third Offset. The flight plan outlines priorities for how the Air Force operates its current fleet and purchases new aircraft. Future small unmanned systems need to include improved beyond line of sight flight, assured and secure networks, long-range endurance, and autonomy, the plan says. Future drones must operate in permissive, contested, and highly contested environments. (See also: Investing in Game-Changing Tech.) (Read the report; Caution, large-sized file.)