Unmanned Combat Systems: The technology is here. How prepared are we? Back


Aerospace & Defence industry has always been at the forefront of technological innovations. And these technologies were replicated for civilian and commercial use. An out-of-the-age idea from Nikola Tesla in 1898 which featured a remote-control (R/C) torpedo in New York City led to a lot of innovators and scientists to think in the lines of R/C systems to reduce human causalities. The innovation coupled with simplistic ideas led to a series of systems, at that time was tested in the continuous battles and war, changed the way wars and battles were fought for the next century and beyond.

What are Unmanned Combat Systems?

Unmanned combat systems are going to be the new age weapons overturning the rules of future war and have been the focus of research and development of military powers. There are no generally accepted definitions for these so-called boasted core weapon of the 21st century.

Unmanned Combat Systems, from the research heading, are an integrated combat system comprising unmanned combat platforms, task payloads, command and control (C2) systems and network systems. For field applications, unmanned combat systems can be categorised into (i) deep space unmanned systems, (ii) unmanned aerial vehicle systems, (iii) ground unmanned systems, (iv) surface unmanned systems, (v) underwater unmanned systems

Does “Unmanned” mean no soldiers?

All through the history of mankind, the elements of any war have three integral and indispensable components: humans, weapons, a battlefield. Conventional and new age wars have taught us that ‘battlefield’ and ‘weapons’ can be extremely subjective, and the term can be utilised to the wildest of imaginations. War theatres are becoming urban and cyber/ cyber-physical, weapons becoming innovative, but the only element that has remained constant is the humans.

Unmanned combat systems have limited  autonomy; it is the human element which is the key to operations. The skills of new-age soldiers are ever-changing than just physically being fit and able to operate weapons. The human element has been the critical reason for war all through history. Ranging from economic gain, territorial gain, nationalism, civil war, defensive war, revolutionary war, religion, or revenge – it has always been the human element behind all the wars.

Field level requirements – Expectations vs Reality

Essential requirement and expectation of any field-level soldier would be for the system to work right, every time while considering ease of use. The forces work on layered defence approach for all critical assets. The layered approach is targeted to gain insights and early warning at the point of a breach to make sure that it does not reach the critical assets. This layered defence needs the fastest situational awareness and decision-making capabilities. It is this ability which decides on the course of countermeasure as well as retaliation. Control of the air is critical to ascertain the desired results in times of decision making. Autonomous systems which have decision-making ability (without causing harm to own side) is the need of the forces, and the expectations depend on this need. Image 1 showcases the layered defence approach.

Concerning the reality of what is available with the forces, there are independent systems, working with limited or no autonomy. These are being developed for utilisation in the field as standalone systems. Remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles, limited autonomy air defence systems, and intrusion detection technologies are available for the forces to use. These systems are developed with the utmost safety and some aspects of security considerations, but are they also considered for interoperability with future systems?

Making sure the systems are reliable and secure!

A considerable percentage of defence systems fail to meet their reliability requirement. It is mainly due to the end-user environment. For a country like India, where a system must be considered for use in weather conditions ranging from extreme snow to extreme heat and even the rainiest terrain, reliability proves to be a major challenge. Reliability failure post-deployment can result in costly and strategic delays resulting in expensive redesign efforts. Systems that fail to meet reliability requirements are likely to need additional scheduled and unscheduled maintenance and possibly even replacement systems.

Making systems reliable is a challenge only after the system is built. But understanding functional safety and security as well as its considerations right from the design stage is equally important for the systems to be reliable. Integrity is the property closely related to dependability and trustworthiness. Traditionally safety and security are two major risks that are tackled separately. It is because of this independent approach that there are two separate communities which works on their own standards, publishing their own guidelines and journals, or even organising their own conferences. More and more vulnerabilities are being exposed on the security side, and it is getting recognised worldwide that both engineering specialities cannot continue to ignore each other or work in isolation. Image 2 represents functional safety and security, playing a vital role in any system integrity.

Standards, Considerations and Approach

Standards form the basis for the introduction of new technologies and innovations. It ensures that products and processes developed and or supplied by various stakeholders are mutually compliant. The safety standards of the aerospace and defence industry domains have evolved a great extent that the standards have remained as a benchmark for adopting/building safety standards in other industry domain. But as noted in the previous section, since safety and security engineering been working in isolation, the security standards on the other industry domains like manufacturing, industrial, energy and the banking sectors are much more robust given the vulnerability and threat exposure. The defence domain too has started to address the gap of creating/modifying existing process standards and guidelines catering to cyber-physical systems, the system of systems and the Internet of Things.

It is imperative that we follow a process standard but not necessarily create one. Most of the time, adoption from existing process standards works best as this gives leeway to select the best from each of the existing standards in compiling a failproof functional system. Concerning the current process standards and guidelines which can be adopted or referred to for developing a safe and secure system, there are several internationally acclaimed standards available. Most of the times, these standards are developed based on the forces need.

From an overall assurance perspective, ISO/IEC/IEEE 15026 (Systems and software engineering – Systems and software assurance) and ISO/IEC 27005 (Information Technology – Security techniques – Information security risk management) can be adopted to form a risk assessment perspective.

Considering the risks as per the suggested standards, IEEE 12207 (International Standard – Systems and software engineering – Software lifecycle processes) is one of the most widely used international standards for overall software lifecycle process perspective. Starting with MIL-STD 1679 (Weapon system software development) and its predecessors/successors, several military standards can be adopted/ referred to from a safety perspective, including MIL-STD 498, MIL-STD 882, MIL-STD 883, MIL-HDBK 61A, MIL HDBK 217, MIL HDBK 470A, MIL-PRF-195000 and the likes. The US Department of Defense also has a series of standards which can be adopted from a safety perspective like DoD-STD 2167, DoD-STD 7935, DoD-STD 1703, etc. The most famous aerospace standard for COTS components and systems of the DO-178 can also be referred.

From the security considerations perspective, DefStan 05-138, NIST SP 800-171 and ISO/IEC 27001:2013 are a few guidelines/standards which could be adapted for securing the unmanned combat systems. Globally acknowledge aerospace standards of the ‘DO’ family has its own standard DO-326A, which has considerations for certification from a security perspective which could also be adopted.


Given the criticality and dependency, the need of the hour is to focus on increasing the indigenous capability building and systems/sub-systems building. It will ensure that we develop reliable systems. The noted standards and guidelines can be used for addressing safety and security concerns. Security, just like a host of other attributes, must be considered at the start of the development cycle.

Since software is the key for unmanned combat system, using static analysis with formal methods, the absence of run-time errors under all possible control flows and data flows can be proved. Focused test strategies, immediate feedback to the developers, concurrency defect detection, documented flow information, and artifacts for certification standards are some of the best practises that one can follow to make sure the system is safe, secure and reliable. It is achievable while using certified tools all through the development lifecycle.

As part of the ecosystem for all safety, security and mission-critical product development, LDRA has been the pioneers and instrumental in many of the process standards and coding guidelines since 1975. LDRA assured world-class tools, and capabilities make us the preferred partner for Aerospace and Defence vertical. Boasting a worldwide presence, LDRA is headquartered in the United Kingdom with presence in the United States, India and Germany coupled with an extensive distributor network.

October 2020

Unmanned Combat Systems: The technology is here. How prepared are we?