Warplanes: September 13, 2005

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Canada, which will have to replace its fleet of 122 American built F-18 fighters by 2017, is seriously considering buying combat UAVs (UCAVs). The United States already has several UCAVs in development, and so far, the testing has gone well. Recently, one UCAV design, the X45A, even carried out a bombing raid, after first finding the target, without any operator intervention. The production version of this aircraft, the X45C will be 39 feet long (with a 49 foot wingspan.) weigh 19 tons, and have a 2.2 ton payload. The X-45C has a combat radius of 2,300 kilometers, or can go out 1,800 kilometers, hang around for two hours, and return. The X-45C can stay in the air for about six hours on internal fuel. The X-45C will also be able to perform in-flight refueling. Since it doesnt carry a pilot, aerial refueling can be done several times if theres a need to keep the aircraft up there, and there are no equipment problems. The 20 ton F-18 used by Canada (as the CF-18) has less range than the X-45C, and is not as maneuverable. While theres little doubt that UCAVs can carry out recon and bombing missions, the big unknown is air-to-air combat. The software guys believe this will be no problem, the pilot community is less sure. However, tests with remotely controlled fighter aircraft in the 1970s showed that unmanned aircraft had an edge over those with pilots aboard (because many aircraft maneuvers are limited by the physical limitations of the human body, not the aircraft. ) 

American military pilots are not looking forward to the first air-to-air combat tests between piloted aircraft and UCAVs. At the moment, the air power generals (nearly all of them pilots) insist that such tests wont take place any time soon. But if Canada expresses interest in buying the X-45C, but only if it can handle air-to-air combat, Congress can pull rank on the air force generals, and the Canadians will get their flying killdroids. The U.S. Air Force will get heartburn. So if a foreign power is to adopt UCAVs, it might as be our closest ally (although we have lost one war, and several battles, to the Canadians in the past). The main reason the United States is spending so much money on UCAVs is because it is obvious that someone out there will eventually have these aircraft. If the U.S. cannot match foreign UCAVs, America will no longer rule the skies. The UCAVs are 20-30 percent cheaper than comparable manned aircraft, but their biggest selling point is their potential to have a significant combat edge over manned aircraft.

 


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