Warplanes: October 7, 2003


Resistance is building to the UCAV's (unmanned combat aircraft). Moreover, the Department of Defense wants the navy and air force to standardize their designs, and is proposing calling the aircraft J-UCAV (Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles). Naval officers have taken to pronouncing J-UCAV "jackass." The navy sees itself as using UCAVs very differently than the air force. The navy wants to use their more expensive UCAVs on a regular basis, to replace jet bombers on carriers. Because of the difficulty of landing manned, or unmanned, aircraft on carriers, constant practice would be needed. The air force, on the other hand, wants to keep most of their UCAVs in storage, only bringing them out when there's a war. The air force is testing the X-45A, a six ton UCAV that carried 1500 pounds of bombs. The aircraft can spend about three hours in the air per sortie, and has a range of about 1,100 kilometers. It will cost about $15 million each. Despite all that money, the X-45A is pretty dumb. It's mission is programmed on the ground, and it's automatic pilot can  deal with normal flying hazards (winds, mostly), but not something like an enemy fighter or ground fire. The air force is treating the X-45A like it is a reusable cruise missile, which is basically what it is. The larger X-45B is being developed as well. This UCAV weighs 11 tons, carries 3,600 pounds of bombs and has a range of 1,400 kilometers. But it operates the same way as the X-45A and costs about 40 percent more. 

The navy is more ambitious, and it's X-47A, which has a range of 1,600 kilometers and carries 4,000 pounds of bombs, made it's first flight earlier this year. The X-47A is mainly a test vehicle. The UCAV the navy expects to actually use is the X-47B. Work on the X-47B began earlier this year. This UCAV will have a range of 2,300 kilometers, or 2,000 kilometers, plus two hours to circle the battlefield waiting for the ground troops to call for the 4,500 pounds of bombs it can carry. Because the X-47B is larger than the air force UCAVs, and must be rugged enough, and smart enough, to operate off carriers, it will cost more, probably closer to $30 million each.

Another point of contention is the desire of the technical community to equip the UCAVs with sensors (various types of video cams) to give the aircraft the same kind of "situational awareness" that piloted aircraft have. But for this to work, the UCAV would need software that would enable it to think like a fighter pilot. The techies say this can be done. But the fighter pilots that run the air force and naval aviation are not so sure. There also some worry about job security and pilots being replaced by robotic aircraft. All this is headed for some mock combat exercise between manned and unmanned fighters. Such tests will be a competition between pilots and programmers. But the programmer community contains fighter pilots as well, and the smart money is on the geeks to outsmart, or at least outfly, the human pilots. No one thinks it will be a lopsided battle, but the robotic aircraft are so much cheaper, that even a dead even finish favors the pilotless aircraft.


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