February 3, 2001
The US Navy is working on an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) but is considerably behind the similar Air Force programs. The reason for lagging behind is that the Navy demands more from a UCAV than the Air Force does. The Air Force can always find a few hundred square feet to park another aircraft, but the Navy has only so much room on a carrier deck. If the UCAV does not have the same performance as the manned aircraft that it displaces, the carrier cannot afford to make that trade. The Navy UCAV is expected to take off and land from a carrier deck, and must be recovered and taken below decks in the same 45 seconds allowed for a manned fighter. The Navy has told the contractors (Boeing and Northrop Grumman) that it wants a single aircraft able to perform three missions:
1. Attack a target with 2000 pounds of precision-guided munitions.
2. Suppress enemy air defenses with anti-radiation missiles.
3. Provide reconnaissance and surveillance for a 12-hour mission. (The key point here is that a carrier air group conducts operations for 12 hours per day. An unmanned recon plane able to stay aloft 12 hours could cover the period when the air group is stood down.)
The contractors want to provide three separate aircraft, or perhaps three variants of a single airframe. The Navy wants one airframe with the only difference from mission to mission being the contents of the weapons bay. The Navy position is that deck space is limited, and if a single aircraft can perform several missions, that is better than smaller numbers of different types (some of which would be in the hangar unused at any given time). The contractors point out that to get maximum performance on any given mission, a different aircraft would be needed, and a compromise aircraft would be the master of none of the missions. The program concept is for an aircraft that costs under $15 million (one third the cost of a joint strike fighter) while requiring maintenance equal to half that needed by an F-18. Original plans to base these new UCAVs on the amphibious ships have been abandoned as this would require an expensive vertical-take-off variant.--Stephen V Cole