Warplanes: Not Self-Aware, But Getting Closer



November 14, 2008: The V replacement for the MQ-1B Predator UA, the MQ-1C Sky Warrior, recently successfully tested automatic landing and takeoff software. This makes the aircraft easier and safer to use, and also is one step closer to a fully autonomous aircraft. Both the U.S. Army and Air Force will use the Sky Warrior, which was initially developed as an army project. There are already some autonomous UAVs, that can operate without any human control. The air force is particularly keen on making their UAVs more autonomous, to help ease the stress on its overworked UAV crews.

The U.S. Air Force is planning on replacing its Predators with the Sky Warrior. The latter is developed from the former and both are built by the same manufacturer. The air force and army have already agreed to cooperate on maintaining and further developing Predator and Sky Warrior UAVs, which will save money for both services. But the air force is alarmed at some of the army ideas for operating Sky Warrior. For example, the army wants to rely more on the software, than trained pilots, for flying the UAVs. In fact, the army will not use pilots at all as operators. This appalls the air force, which is scrambling to turn fighter and transport pilots into Predator operators. The air force does use non-pilots for micro-UAVs (similar to the army's five pound Raven), which are used to help guard air force bases. But for larger UAVs, the air force is concerned about collisions, with other UAVs or manned aircraft. The army believes the future holds technological solutions for this problem. Besides, the army can't spare pilots to man its planned force of over 500 Sky Warriors.

General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator UAV, is developing the new Sky Warrior UAV. The army wants 45 squadrons (each with 12 UAVs), at a cost of about $8 million per aircraft (including ground equipment). The Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 500 pounds of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Sky Warrior has a wingspan 56 feet and is 28 feet long. The Sky Warrior is heavier than the one ton Predator, and a bit larger and more capable in general. Basically, it's "Predator Plus", with the added ability to land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator).

The air force uses Predator and Warrior class UAVs more as strategic recon aircraft, and put them at the disposal of the most senior combat commander in the region (currently, the head of CENTCOM). The air force believed that the army policy of assigning Sky Warriors to brigade and division commanders was wasteful, because many would be sitting on the ground when the CENTCOM commander has a mission that would benefit from the maximum number of UAVs being used. But the army convinced the air force that for the combat brigade commander, having those UAVs under his command, all the time, is essential to planning and carrying out combat operations. Too often in the past, getting the needed number of aircraft from the air force/navy "pool" was chancy, and a major headache for ground commanders. This new policy isn't all that new. During World War II, the Russians gave ground commanders their own air forces, for the same reason American commanders still need them 65 years later. 

While the air force has agreed to coexist with the new army air force, the army has also agreed to work out how to handle the new traffic problems. Sky Warrior has a max ceiling of 29,000 feet, which puts it up there (above 10,000 feet) where the large, manned, air force aircraft operate. Below 10,000 feet, especially below a thousand feet, pilots are warned to be alert for army artillery shells and rockets, as well as the five pound Raven UAVs. Basically, it's dangerous down low, although army helicopter pilots survive. But they can move slowly, while air force jets require the army guys to make sure the air is clear (of little UAVs and large artillery shells) before coming on the deck for some gunnery. The air force A-10 pilots do this all the time, but it can be unnerving for an F-16 pilot. So the air force and the army have formed a group to not only work out new rules, but to keep an eye on the situation indefinitely, because there will always be new aircraft and technology to work into the air control system.

The war on terror, and the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have created a radical change in the way air power supports the ground troops. Blame it all on UAVs and smart bombs. The former made aircraft much more effective at reconnaissance, while the latter made aircraft much more effective at close air support. Both of these changes were radical, not just incremental little improvements on what had been done before. Now the army has gained direct control over the new combat aircraft (the larger UAVs), while also acquiring smart (GPS guided) shells and rockets. This is a major shift in combat power, and it will now be up to the army, much more so than in the past, to develop new strategies and tactics for the use of air power. The U.S. Army Air Force, which dissolved into the U.S. Air Force in 1947, is back.