Warplanes: The Crew Disappears

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December 17, 2007: Israel is planning to create an AWACS (Airborne Early Warning Aircraft) UAV by replacing the crew, of their current AWACS, with robots. First, the radar and other operators on the Israeli designed AWACS (a Gulfstream 550 aircraft equipped with the Israeli Phalcon radar system) will be replaced by satellite data links. The equipment will be operated by ground based personnel. Next comes automated flight controls. This is not as big a leap as it appears. For years, commercial aircraft have had flight control systems that can land and fly to their destination automatically. Automated take offs are possible, but not necessary, as most of that process consists of maneuvering the aircraft on the ground, to get it into position where it can execute the relatively simple (at least compared to a landing) procedure. Landing is much more complicated, especially at night or in bad weather. That's why automated landing systems were developed first. There was a real need for this sort of stuff. Meanshile, the Global Hawk, the largest UAV in service, already has automated landing, flight and takeoff. All an operator does is maneuver the UAV around on the ground, before takeoff and after landing. The Gulfstream 550 UAV would use such flight control software, plus the addition of cameras in the cockpit, so that the ground operator could see what pilots normally did.

This approach may seem wasteful, as the aircraft still goes up with all the equipment normally used to keep people alive and comfortable. But much of that stuff can be removed, thus extending the air time for the aircraft, or allowing the addition of more equipment. Moreover, developing a new UAV, from scratch, is very expensive. The Gulfstream 550 UAV would be very competitive pricewise.

Last year, Israel put its first Gulfstream 550 AWACS into service. This was basically a long range business jet (the 40 ton Gulfstream G500) and Israeli made radar and electronics. This AWACS uses a Phalcon conformal (it is built into the lower fuselage) phased array radar, SIGINT equipment (to capture and analyze enemy electronic transmissions) and a communications system that can handle satellite signals as well as a wide array of other transmissions. There are six personnel on board to handle all this gear, plus the flight crew. These systems go for about $375 million each.

The Gulfstream G550, is an upgrade of the G500, and can stay in the air for over twelve hours per sortie, and fly as high as 51,000 feet. The G500/550 is a larger version of the Gulfstream G400, which the U.S. Army uses as the C-20H transport. The U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy also use militarized Gulfstreams. The 96 foot long aircraft has two engines and was built for long flights (over 11,000 kilometers). Current Gulfstream G500s cost about $40 million each. The Israeli air force operates six older Phalcon aircraft (using Boeing 707 airframes).

Many nations are looking to buy UAV AWACs, maritime reconnaissance and electronics warfare aircraft. The Gulfstream 550 UAV could serve all three markets, and without waiting a 5-10 years to design and build a new Global Hawk (or a bit larger) size UAV.

 


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