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This article was Originally Published on Oct 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 5

Day of the Drone

Simply put, UCAVs are intelligent drones packing heat. But the gun-toting UCAVs may also mean the end of fighter jock primacy.

by Michael Peck

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A ball of flame, a cloud of smoke, and another enemy air defense radar is reduced to its constituent atoms. The survivors curse and shake their fists at the pilot of the aircraft that just bombed them. But whom are they shaking their fists at? There’s nobody in the cockpit. The pilot is sitting hundreds of miles away before a video display of the attack, a cup of coffee by his or her side.

Such is the scenario for the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV), the next step in the unfolding saga of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). In an era when even a handful of American casualties sparks soul-searching and political furor, the question is not “if” but “when” UAVs will become aerial gunslingers.

First there were target practice drones; then reconnaissance drones; then came Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and a recon UAV—the Predator—modified to fire Hellfire missiles. Now—with the Air Force’s prototype X-45 and Navy variations emerging—the UCAV further extends the drone concept to unmanned aircraft specifically designed for combat. By 2010, UCAVs may revolutionize air warfare.

Already U.S. House of Representatives’ language in the FY 2001 National Defense Authorization Act specifies that one-third of deep strike aircraft and ground combat vehicles must be unmanned by 2010 and 2015 respectively. “The bomber is the easiest application of a combat UAV,” said Chris Hellman, a senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.

Consonant with this remark, Boeing Corp. recently won a $460 million contract extension for UCAV development, with $90 million coming from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the remainder from the Air Force. The company’s current X-45A demonstration project will receive $60 million of those funds, while the remaining $400 million will be allocated toward the more advanced X-45B, which the Navy is eyeing. In all, the extension funds a fourth block of X-45A software development and flight testing, two X-45Bs plus two shipping and storage containers, an updated mission control station, and Block 5 software and flight testing.

Deadly Drone

The X-45 is a 26-foot by 34-foot air vehicle that somewhat resembles a mini-F-117 Nighthawk with jagged wings. The craft weighs in at 8,000 pounds and carries a 3,000-pound payload. Its successor, the X-45B, will grow to 32 feet long and a wingspan of 47 feet—with the first operational UCAV growing even larger. For a suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) mission, the Air Force UCAV can be equipped with precision-guided weapons such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition and the Small Diameter Bomb. After flying a mission, the craft can be relaunched, or placed in a container for transport, or storage for up to 10 years. The container even allows for maintenance and software updates with the air vehicle remaining inside. When needed, the UCAV can be lifted out of the container, reassembled and launched within 60 to 90 minutes.

Besides the air vehicle, there also is an air-transportable ground control station that houses the operator (who does not have to be a pilot) and the equipment that he uses to control the air vehicle. The ground station will be re-configurable and will have secure satellite-relay and line-of-sight communications links. Because a single operator will typically control multiple vehicles, the key to UCAV viability is computer capacity sufficient to enable it to function more or less independently.

“The game plan is that you will have one operator controlling from four to six UCAVs,” said Paul Achille, deputy program manager of the Navy’s UAV program office. “This means that the vehicle must have a lot of smarts. It’s a sort of role reversal of what we have with today’s UAVs, where you have at least two operators for one air vehicle.”

Although UCAV’s roles will multiply if demonstrations prove successful, presently the craft is being tested only for SEAD missions. The Air Force envisions the UCAV as “a first day of the war force enabler” that will knock out air defenses before the manned strike aircraft go in, and then will loiter during the manned strike to suppress whatever defenses are left.

The “U” In UCAV

Armed UAVs are already flying—but as a novelty. Hellfire-equipped Predators prowl Afghanistan, operated by a non-military U.S. government agency. Nevertheless, “current UAVs are for surveillance and reconnaissance,” said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. “In some cases they [standard UAVs] have been modified to carry ordnance, but the UCAV was designed from the outset to be lethal.”

What truly distinguishes the UCAV from other UAVs, however, is its onboard capacity to respond to external threats. “Let’s say you have a UCAV and you have it programmed to hit a particular target,” Walker said. “If on its way something happens, such as it sees another target such as a radar that’s preparing to shoot a SAM, the UCAV has the capability to say to its operator, ‘you gave me this mission but I see something else over here, and do you want me to do something about it?’ It also decides amongst the four aircraft [in a UCAV group] how best to hit the target, as in ‘you’re over here and you have this munition, I’m over here and have that munition. It would be better for you to hit it.’”

And although a UCAV will be capable of functioning almost autonomously, the ultimate command—the order to fire weapons—will be strictly reserved for the human operator.

“We view it as a business associate model,” Walker said. “In a business situation, the boss might have an associate, and the associate knows within what boundaries he is authorized to negotiate a deal. If he has a deal that is outside the boundaries he was given when he left the office, he can call the office and ask if it’s okay.”

Air Force and Navy UCAVs

In conjunction with Boeing and DARPA, the Air Force is already flying demonstration models of the X-45 UCAV, and will actually begin acquiring the bird in 2003. The Navy, however, trails the Air Force in UCAV development by as many as two years, but will soon decide, along with DARPA, whether the Boeing X-46, or Northrop Grumman’s X-47 Pegasus will build the prototype UCAV-N.

Initially self-funded as a concept demonstrator by Northrop Grumman, the X-47 is designed to showcase its facility for long-range naval reconnaissance purposes, a prime consideration of Navy/DARPA program officers. All UCAV types from this contractor mix, however, will be capable of executing SEAD, strike, and reconnaissance missions.

To date, DARPA has awarded—extending into mid-2005—$9.9 million to Boeing and $10 million to Northrop Grumman for UCAV-N technology development. Under a follow-up phase, which may begin later this year, DARPA will choose either of the two contractors to conduct actual UCAV-N flight testing—or allow both companies to proceed separately with initial flight testing.

But while the Air Force and Navy UCAVs are conceptually similar, their designs emphasize different priorities. The Air Force UCAV is optimized for SEAD first, followed by strike and reconnaissance missions. Navy’s UCAV-N, however, is designed with reconnaissance and surveillance as its first priority, followed by the strike and SEAD roles—with such capabilities appearing as late as 2020.

The UCAV-N is designed to find targets and let carrier-borne strike aircraft handle the demolition work. “That’s one of the reasons why the Navy UCAV is a little farther out in time than the Air Force,” Achille said. “It’s because we don’t want it to go out there and do preemptive strikes against fixed targets. We have manned carrier assets that can do that. But we want to go out and find targets in all kinds of weather and all kinds of environmental targets.”

The Navy is particularly concerned with locating mobile targets. “Any one of the services can develop a UCAV that will go out and kill six fixed targets,” Achille said. “That is not so technically challenging. But is that going to be the [scenario] of 2010 and 2020? The Navy’s concern is on mobile and relocatable targets. We have to go find them first.”

A lack of organic reconnaissance assets for Navy carrier groups is the major impetus behind optimizing the UCAV-N for surveillance. “If you look at what we will have on board our carriers in the 2010 to 2015 timeframe, we’ll have the F/A 18 E and ‘F’ and the JSF out there, but the Viking will be retired,” Achille said. “But with the UCAV-N, we’ll have at least some organic ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] capabilities.”

Insiders say that the UCAV-N will probably be larger than its Air Force counterpart, with longer endurance and a larger payload. It will have 12 hours endurance, which will enable it to cover reconaissance  tasks during the down period when a carrier isn’t launching aircraft, said Randy Secor, Northrop Grumman’s program manager for the UCAV-N and X-47 projects. The UCAV-N will have a range of 1,500 nautical miles compared the 650-nautical mile range of the Air Force UCAV.

A key to a successful UCAV-N will be its adaptability to carrier flight operations. Northrop Grumman’s  $50 million X-47, which conducted low-speed taxiing tests in July, was mainly designed to display aerodynamic concepts for carrier launchings and landings. Secor said this is why the Pegasus is tailless and is shaped like a kite.

Constructed out of composite materials, the craft has a coeval length and wingspan of about 28 feet. One Northrop Grumman official predicted that its UCAV-N will be powered by some variant of the ubiquitous General Electric F-404 engine, and will be armed with a 2,000-pound standoff weapon mounted on either side of the fuselage.

Secor noted that some of the X-47’s design is based on Northrop Grumman’s previous work on the Global Hawk, which he considers to be the first of the autonomous UAVs. “Basically, with a couple of mouse clicks for the Global Hawk, you say ‘start engine and taxi down the runway.’ The next mouse click says ‘take off’ and it’s gone for 25 to 30 hours. That’s a tremendous capability we bring to a UCAV-N that is supposed to fly for 12 hours.”

Beyond Combat

While a combat UAV is a milestone, there is little doubt that autonomous air vehicles will be used for other roles. “The sky is the limit,” said CDI’s Hellman. “People are just beginning to think creatively about using UAVs. So far we’re only scratching the surface.”

And air superiority UCAVs are not out of the question, Hellman added. “In theory you could have an air superiority UAV.” Secor believes that an UCAV-like vehicle could even be an unmanned tanker refueling manned aircraft.

One benefit of UCAV is cost, both in terms of the air vehicle and the expense of training pilots. “Because of their small size, lack of pilot interfaces and training requirements, reusability and long-term storage capability, UCAVs are projected to cost up to 65 percent less to produce than future manned fighter aircraft, and up to 75 percent less to operate and maintain than current systems,” according to the Air Force.

This poses the question as to how willing tomorrow’s pilots will be to allow some of their work usurped by unmanned aircraft. “They fear it,” said one Marine officer. But the UAV community believes that UCAVs are here to stay.

“There is a growing realization that there are few things that a manned aircraft can do that a UAV can’t,” Hellman said. “The question has been about taking humans out of the loop. Is taking them out of the cockpit synonymous with taking them out of the loop? The answer is that they are not synonymous.”

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