Russia has now joined China and European firms in developing UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle). These are replacements for current light bombers (or fighters operating as light bombers) and combat reconnaissance aircraft. The Russian entry is a further development of its Skat UAV, a ten ton aircraft with a two ton payload and a design that looks very similar to the American X-47 series. The MiG Aircraft Corporation developed Skat and the new UCAV as well.
A Chinese UCAV, called the Li Jian, was photographed moving around an airfield under its own power back in May, which is the sort of thing a new aircraft does before its first flight. For two years now the Li Jian has been photographed as a mock up, then a prototype, and is now taxiing around. The Li Jian is similar in size and shape to the U.S. Navy X-47B. The European entries also look like the X-47 design.
It’s generally recognized that robotic combat aircraft are the future, even though many of the aviation commanders (all of them pilots) wish it were otherwise. Whoever gets there first (a UCAV that really works) will force everyone else to catch up or end up the loser in their next war with a UCAV equipped opponent. China may have just copied pictures of the X-47B, or done so with the help of data obtained by their decade long Internet espionage operation. Whatever the case, the Li Jian is not far behind the X-47B and the Russians and Europeans appear to be going in the same direction with increasing vigor.
These aircraft are meant to operate like current armed UAVs or like cruise missiles (which go after targets under software control). Enemy jamming can interfere with remote control and you have to be ready for that. This could mean pre-programmed orders to continue the mission (to put smart bombs on a specific target, the sort of attack cruise missiles have been carrying out for decades) or attempt that but turn around and return to base if certain conditions were not met (pre-programmed criteria of what is an acceptable target). Fighter (as opposed to bomber) UCAVs can be programmed to take on enemy fighters (manned or not) with some remote control or completely under software control. This is the future and China wants to keep up. This sort of thing frightens many people but has, in fact, been around for over a century (the naval mine and torpedoes). Both these weapons have, for decades, been equipped with increasingly powerful artificial intelligence. That tech has been applied to a growing number of missiles and “smart bombs.” This sort of tech is not the future, it’s the present and has been since the 19th century.
The U.S. Navy’s X-47B UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) is the most advanced of these unmanned combat aircraft and that’s what has other countries hustling to match this tech. For example, the X-47B made the first successful carrier landings in July. While software controlled landing systems have been around for decades, landing on a moving air field (an aircraft carrier) is considerably more complex than the usual situation (landing on an airfield). Dealing with carrier landings requires more powerful hardware and software aboard the aircraft. The navy expects glitches and bugs but hopes to catch up to the reliability of commercial landing software (which has been used very successfully on land based UAVs) within years rather than decades.
The X-47B made its first catapult launch from an aircraft carrier last May. That was followed by several touch and go landings on a carrier. The first carrier landing, as expected, followed soon. Two years ago the navy successfully tested its UCAV landing software, using a manned F-18 for the test, landing it on a carrier completely under software control. The first carrier launch came five months after an X-47B was catapulted from an airfield built to the same size as a carrier deck and equipped with a catapult. This first launch was to confirm that the X-47B could handle the stress of a catapult launch. Another X-47B has been loaded onto the deck of a carrier, to check out the ability of the UCAV to move around the deck. All this came 22 months after the first flight of the X-47B.
It was 5 years ago that the navy rolled out the first X-47B, its first carrier-based combat UAV. This compact aircraft has a wingspan of 20 meters (62 feet, and the outer 25 percent folds up to save space on the carrier). It carries a two ton payload and will be able to stay in the air for twelve hours. The U.S. is far ahead of other nations in UCAV development, and the U.S. Navy recently announced that 4 manufacturers are competing to design and develop the final version of the X-47, the X-47C. The X-47B is actually a development model, meant to prove that the concept works. That has been done, and the next step is to create a slightly larger and more complex X-47C that will eventually enter regular service on carriers and land bases.
The U.S. Navy has done the math and realized that they need UCAVs on their carriers as soon as possible. The current plan is to get these aircraft into service before the end of the decade. But there is an effort to get the unmanned carrier aircraft into service sooner than that. The math problem that triggered all this is the realization that American carriers had to get within 800 kilometers of their target before launching current manned bombers. Potential enemies increasingly have aircraft and missiles with a range greater than 800 kilometers. The X-47B UCAV has a range of 2,500 kilometers and is seen as the solution.
For most of the last decade, the navy has been hustling to ready a UCAV for carrier operations and combat use. The navy has now demonstrated that the X-47B has the ability to regularly operate from a carrier, and next comes doing that and performing combat (including reconnaissance and surveillance) operations. The new efforts aim to have UCAV aircraft perform ground attack missions as well, something the Predators have been doing for over a decade. The larger Reaper UAV was designed to expand this combat capability and is being built as quickly as possible to replace F-16s and other bombers in the combat zone.
The 20 ton X-47B weighs a little less than the twenty-four ton F-18A and has two internal bays holding two tons of smart bombs. Once it can operate off a carrier, the X-47B will be used for a lot of bombing, sort of a super-Reaper. The navy has been impressed with the success of the Predator and Reaper. But the Reaper weighs only 4.7 tons. The much larger X-47B uses a F100-PW-220 engine, which is currently used in the F-16 and F-15.
The air force and navy have always differed about the widespread use of UAVs in combat. When the air force agreed to work with the navy on UCAVs a decade ago, the idea was that the air force ones would largely remain in storage, to provide a rapid "surge" capability in wartime. The navy, however, wanted to use theirs to replace manned aircraft on carriers. The reason was simple, carrier ops are dangerous and carrier qualified pilots are more difficult and expensive to train and retain in the service. The navy still has these problems and senior admirals are pretty much in agreement that UCAVs are the future of carrier aviation. The sooner these UCAVs prove they can safely and effectively operate from carriers, the better. Normally, "X" class aircraft are just used as technology demonstrators. But the X-47 program has been going on for so long, and has incorporated so much from UAVs already serving in combat, that the X-47B will probably end up running recon and bombing missions as the MQ-47C.
The Department of Defense leadership is backing the navy efforts and spurring the air force to catch up. At the moment, the air force is cutting orders for MQ-9s, which are used as a ground support aircraft, in addition to reconnaissance and surveillance because American troops are being pulled out of Afghanistan, and it is believed Reaper would not be very useful against China, North Korea, or Iran. But, as the navy is demonstrating, you can build UCAVs that can carry more weapons, stay in the air longer, and hustle to where they are needed faster. The more the navy succeeds the more the air force will pay attention.