June 28, 2009: Over the last year, the U.S. Navy has really gotten behind UAVs on carriers. There has long been some resistance to UAVs from the aviation community. But what won everyone over was the same thing that made UAVs so popular with the army and marines; persistence. With a few Predators, you can maintain 24/7 observation over a lot of real estate. That's persistent observation, and it is a big advantage in combat. The submarine and surface warfare communities in the navy were eager to get that. The marines were already seeing persistence in action, when they served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The submariners liked the idea of long range, persistent, UAVs scouting way ahead for them. Then there is the prospect of one-way UAVs that could be launched from a torpedo tube. Suddenly, with UAVs, there are all manner of new possibilities. But it was the carrier community that finally saw the future. The persistent, much longer ranged, UAVs kept carriers safer, and enabled carrier aviation to strike targets much farther away.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy has rolled out its first combat UAV (or UCAS, for Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System). This is part of a six year long, $636 million contract to build and test two X-47B aircraft. The test program calls for first flight next year and first carrier landing in three years. The 15 ton X-47B has a wingspan of 62 feet (whose outer 15 foot portions fold up to save space on the carrier). It carries a two ton payload and be able to stay in the air for twelve hours.
Five years ago, the X-47A UCAV made its first flight. Development of this aircraft began in 2001. The Air Force was also testing the X-45 UCAV, which also had a naval version (the X-46). The X-45 program began in 1999, and the eight ton (max takeoff weight, with two ton payload) aircraft was ready for operational tests in 2006. The X-46 has a different wing layout, and a range of 1,100 kilometers, carrying a payload of two tons. The X-47A also has a two ton payload and a range of 1,600 kilometers. Unlike the X-45, which is built to be stored for long periods, the X-47A was built for sustained use aboard a carrier. All of these aircraft are very stealthy and can operate completely on their own (including landing and takeoff, under software control). The UCAVs would be used for dangerous missions, like destroying enemy air defenses, and reconnaissance.
The U.S. Department of Defense has decided to make the next generation heavy bomber an unmanned aircraft. The Department of Defense also wants the new aircraft in service by the end of the next decade, some twenty years ahead of schedule. It was also decided that the X-45 project be split up, with the air force and navy allowed to develop combat UAVs to suit their particular needs. The X-45 was meant mainly for those really dangerous bombing missions, early on, when enemy air defenses have to be destroyed. But the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the UCAS developers were coming up with an aircraft that could replace all current fighter-bombers. This was partly because of the success of the X45 in reaching its development goals, and the real-world success of the Predator (in finding, and attacking, targets) and Global Hawk (in finding stuff after flying half way around the world by itself.)
The X-45A passed tests with formation flying, and dropping a JDAM (actually the new 250 pound SDB version). An X-45C could carry eight SDB (250 pound small diameter bombs), or up to two tons of other JDAMs. The X-45A has already shown it can fly in formation. The planned X-45C would weigh in at about 19 tons, have a 2.2 ton payload and be 39 feet long (with a 49 foot wingspan.) The X-45A, built for development only, is 27 feet long, has a wingspan of 34 feet and has a payload of 1.2 tons. The X-45C was designed to hit targets 2,300 kilometers away and be used for bombing and reconnaissance missions. Each X-45C was to cost about $30 million, depending on how extensive, and expensive, its electronic equipment was. Believing they could do better, the U.S. Air Force cancelled its X-45 program two years ago, and is now looking into different UCAV designs.
The one topic no one wants to touch at the moment is air-to-air. This appears to be the last job left for pilots of combat aircraft. The geeks believe they have this one licked, and are giving the pilot generals the, "bring it on" look. The generals are not keen to test their manned aircraft against a UAV, but this will change the minute another country, like China or Russia, demonstrates that they are seriously moving in that direction.
Meanwhile, many UCAV designers want 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.
The U.S. Navy has invested several billion dollars, so far, in developing combat UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that can operate from aircraft carriers, and replace some of the manned aircraft on carriers. There are other problems with the combat UAVs, and these concern just how they will be used. Currently, the thinking is that they will be sort of like cruise missiles that return, and will be most useful for reconnaissance and dangerous missions like taking out enemy air defenses. But many UAV engineers, and some fighter pilots, believe that combat UAVs could revolutionize air warfare. Combat UAVs can perform maneuvers that a manned aircraft cannot (because there are limits to the g-forces a human body can tolerate.) In theory, software and sensors would make a combat UAV much quicker to sort out a combat situation, and make the right move. For the moment, this aspect of UAV development is officially off the table. But once combat UAVs start operating, and that will be by the end of the decade, there will be much pressure to let combat UAVs rule the skies, in addition to scouting and bombing.