February 9, 2011: On February 4th, the U.S. Navy X-47B UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) made its first flight. It was three years ago that the navy rolled out its first combat UAV; the 15 ton X-47B. This pilotless aircraft has a wingspan of 20 meters/62 feet (whose outer 5 meter/15 foot portions fold 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 this is energizing activity in Russia, Europe and China to develop similar aircraft.
Eight years ago, the smaller X-47A UCAV made its first flight, after being in development since 2001. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force was also testing the X-45 UCAV, which also had a naval version (the X-46). The X-45 program began in 1999, and the eight ton (max takeoff weight, with two ton payload) aircraft was ready for operational tests in 2006. The X-46 has a different wing layout, and a range of 1,100 kilometers, carrying a payload of two tons. The X-47A also has a two ton payload and a range of 1,600 kilometers. Unlike the X-45, which is built to be stored for long periods, the X-47A was built for sustained use aboard a carrier. All of these aircraft are stealthy and can operate completely on their own (including landing and takeoff, under software control). The UCAVs would be used for dangerous missions, like destroying enemy air defenses, and reconnaissance. Even air force commanders are eager to turn over SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions to UAVs. SEAD is the most dangerous mission for combat pilots. But until quite recently, all these projects had either been cancelled, or were headed in that direction.
Now, the U.S. Department of Defense wants the new UAV combat aircraft in service by the end of the decade, some twenty years ahead of a schedule that was planned in the 1990s. The F-35 is expected to cease production in 2034, more than a decade after the first combat UAVs, that can match F-35 performance, enters service.
Unable to buy new aircraft designs (because they are too expensive, or simply take too long to get into service), and facing the prospect of unmanned aircraft (UAVs) displacing more and more manned ones, the American military is spending a growing chunk of its budgets on upgrading and refurbishing the combat aircraft they already have. This was not a deliberate, long term plan, but simply a reaction to shortages of new aircraft. A lot of the new electronics and weapons involved in these upgrades can also equip UAV designs still in development, so such efforts are a double win.
More and more, it looks like the new 36 ton F-22 and 27 ton F-35 are the end of the road for manned fighter-bombers. Not just because the F-22 and F-35 cost so much to develop, but because so much new tech has arrived on the scene that it simply makes more military, and economic, sense to go with unmanned aircraft. Meanwhile, the existing F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, A-10s and all American heavy bombers are being equipped with new targeting pods and combat Internet connections, along with new radars and all sorts of electronics. Older aircraft are having worn out structural components rebuilt or replaced. This buys time until the unmanned aircraft are ready. F-35s will also fill the gap, which may be a very small one.
It's not just the Americans that are going in this direction. A European consortium is building an "Advanced UAV" and have determined that each of these jet propelled vehicles will cost about $40 million. Called the Barracuda, the 3-6 ton aircraft would be able to carry a ton of weapons, as well as sensors. This UAV would not enter service until late in the next decade. It's similar to the U.S. X-45 and X-47 combat UAVs, although intended more for combat support jobs performed by the American Reaper (recon and light strike duties). There are several European combat UAV projects and Russia announced that they are working on several similar designs.
Over the last few years, it was decided that the air force and navy be allowed to develop combat UAVs to suit their particular needs. The X-45 was meant mainly for those really dangerous bombing and SEAD missions. But the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the UCAV developers were coming up with an aircraft that could replace all current fighter-bombers. This was partly because of the success of the X-45 in rapidly reaching its development goals, and the real-world success of the Predator (in finding, and attacking, targets) and Global Hawk (in finding stuff after flying half way around the world by itself.)
In the last few years, the X45A passed tests for formation flying, and dropping a JDAM (actually the new 130 kg/285 pound SDB version). An X45C could carry eight SDB (small diameter bombs), or up to two tons of other JDAMs. The planned X45C would weigh in at about 19 tons, have a 2.2 ton payload and be 11.6 meter/39 feet long (with a 15.8 meter/49 foot wingspan.) The X-45A, built for development only, is 8.7 meter/27 feet long, has a wingspan of 11 meter/34 feet and has a payload of 1.2 tons. The X-45C was designed to hit targets 2,300 kilometers away and be used for bombing and reconnaissance missions. Each X-45C was to cost about $30 million, depending on how extensive, and expensive, its electronic equipment was. Believing they could do better, the U.S. Air Force cancelled its X-45 program four years ago, and is now looking into different UCAV designs.
The one topic no one wants to touch at the moment is air-to-air. This appears to be the last job left for pilots of combat aircraft. The geeks believe they have this one licked, and are giving the pilot generals the, "bring it on" look. The generals are not keen to test their manned aircraft against a UAV, but this will change the minute another country, like China or Russia, demonstrates that they are seriously moving in that direction.
Meanwhile, many UCAV designers want to equip the UCAVs with sensors (various types of video cams) to give the aircraft the same kind of "situational awareness" that piloted aircraft have. But for this to work, the UCAV would need software that would enable it to think like a fighter pilot. The techies say this can be done. But the fighter pilots that run the air force and naval aviation are not so sure. There also some worry about job security and pilots being replaced by robotic aircraft. All this is headed for some mock combat exercise between manned and unmanned fighters. Such tests will be a competition between pilots and programmers. But the programmer community contains fighter pilots as well, and the smart money is on the geeks to outsmart, or at least outfly, the human pilots. No one thinks it will be a lopsided battle, but the robotic aircraft are so much cheaper, that even a dead even finish favors the pilotless aircraft. The geeks have already demonstrated the prowess of their artificial fighter pilots in simulators, and even flight simulators available in the game market.
Many UAV engineers, and some fighter pilots, believe that combat UAVs could revolutionize air warfare. Combat UAVs can perform maneuvers that a manned aircraft cannot (because there are limits to the g-forces a human body can tolerate.) In theory, software and sensors would make a combat UAV much quicker to sort out a combat situation, and make the right move. For the moment, this aspect of UAV development is officially off the table. But once combat UAVs start operating, and that will be by the end of the decade, there will be much pressure to let combat UAVs rule the skies, in addition to scouting and bombing. The senior Pentagon leadership have seen this future, and believe it is the real one. Many European, and Indian, aviation commanders agree.