Warplanes: March 16, 2002


Congress has ordered the military to have a third of its attack aircraft be unmanned drones by 2010. The Pentagon says it cannot meet this deadline, and it doesn't want to (due to the "fighter pilot union"). Even so, the Air Force has noted that work on new microwave weapons has come along better than expected, and it plans to have a microwave weapon available to fit into its Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle by 2012. Current microwave weapons can generate 3,000 watts. By 2004, these should reach 15,000 watts by 2004 and 100,000 watts by 2007. A microwave weapon could be extremely useful in combat. By 2010, such weapons would be able to "kill" a main battle tank by destroying its electronics. A microwave weapon could destroy most military vehicles, missile launchers, ballistic missiles in the first seconds of flight, command posts, radar stations, and could even damage the electronics on a warship. Most interesting of all, a microwave weapon could destroy the electronics of deep bunkers by feeding power through any electrical connection to the surface, including power lines, telephone lines, water pipes, or even metal-lined air ducts. Once that much power reaches the inside of the bunker, it could easily melt radios or computers and start fires. 

The first prototype X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle will fly this spring, with 14 of the aircraft in service by 2003. Operational (and much larger) X-45Bs should fly in 2004. The X-45B design is 24 percent larger than the X-45A, and 31 percent heavier empty. The weapons bay of the X-45B has grown to the same size as that on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (168 inches long, 26.6 inches wide, and 17 inches high). This will provide room for six small smart bombs. The propulsion system will be increased to 7,000 pounds. (The actual engine will be selected this summer.) One drawback of the larger X-45B is that only four of them could be carried in a C-17, compared to six of the smaller and less capable X-45As.

The current Predator drones are looking for new missiles. The Army Hellfire is not designed to resist the cold temperatures at the altitudes (30,000 feet) where the Predator flies, and lacks the range to effectively attack targets from that height. Under study are improved variants of Hellfire and the Locass missile. Another option would be to arm Predator with the air-to-air version of the Stinger missile and use it to shoot down other UAVs or cruise missiles. 

Meanwhile, the Army is to make the first small steps with its unmanned Hunter recon drone this summer, hanging a BAT anti-armor munition under each wing. The operator would simply drop the self-guiding munitions over the target.--Stephen V Cole


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