Warplanes: Robotic Fighter-Bombers Are Massing On The Horizon


May 13, 2010: Boeing recently revealed that it has built a new, jet propelled, combat UAV, the Phantom Ray. It looks remarkably like the X-45C that Boeing was developing for the air force, before that project was cancelled four years ago. Boeing admitted that Phantom Ray is, in effect, an upgraded X-45C. Since the X-45 was cancelled, enthusiasm for such aircraft has grown in the air force and navy. So Boeing, using its own money, went ahead and built the X-45C/Phantom Ray, and plans to have it make its first flight before the end of the year. After that, who knows?

Boeing is not alone. Last year, General Atomics (manufacturer of the Predator) revealed its Avenger (Predator C), which is 14.2 meters (44 feet) long, and was built to be stealthy. The V shaped tail and smooth lines of the swept wing aircraft will make it difficult to detect by radar. There is a humpbacked structure on top of the aircraft, for the engine air intake. There is an internal bomb bay that hold up to 1.4 tons of weapons, or additional fuel to provide another two hours of flying time, in addition to the standard 20 hours endurance. The 4,800 pound thrust engine appears to be built to minimize the heat signature sensors. General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world's largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Avenger looks very similar to Phantom Ray, and the navy plans to check it out. Boeing sees General Atomics as a formidable competitor in the UAV market, and wants to get back in the running for big combat UAV contracts.

The Phantom Ray is a flying wing design, similar to the X-45s and X-47s built as development aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and Navy. These UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) were built to carry weapons. The U.S. Air Force's X-45A combat UAV (UCAV) dropped its first smart bomb in 2004.  Two years ago, the U.S. Navy rolled out its first combat UAV. This was part of a six year long, $636 million contract to build and test two X-47B aircraft. The test program calls for first flight this year and first carrier landing in two years. The 15 ton X-47B has a wingspan of 20 meter/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.

Seven years ago, the X-47A UCAV made its first flight. Development of this aircraft began in 2001. The 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 was built to be stored for long periods, the X-47A was built for sustained use aboard a carrier. All of these aircraft are very 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.

The X-45 was meant mainly for those really dangerous bombing missions, early on, when enemy air defenses have to be destroyed. But the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the UCAS 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 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.)

The X-45A also passed tests with formation flying. The X-45C was designed to carry eight SDB (250 pound small diameter bombs), or up to two tons of other JDAMs. The planned X-45C would weigh in at about 19 tons, have a 2.2 ton payload and be 12.6 meters/39 feet long (with a 15.8 meter/49 foot wingspan.) The X-45A, built for development only, is 8.7 meters/27 feet long, has a wingspan of 11 meters/34 feet and has a payload of 1.2 tons. The X-45C was designed to hit targets 2,300 kilometers away. 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 three years ago, and is now looking into different UCAV designs. But it looks like Boeing believes the air force will come back to the X-45/ Phantom Ray.

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 is 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 U.S. Navy has invested several billion dollars, so far, in developing combat UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that can operate from aircraft carriers, and replace some of the manned aircraft on carriers.

There are other problems with the combat UAVs, and these concern just how they will be used. Currently, the thinking is that they will be sort of like cruise missiles that return, and will be most useful for reconnaissance and dangerous missions like taking out enemy air defenses. But 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.

Meanwhile, a jet powered UAV, similar in shape to several tailless flying wing designs already out there (like the Phantom Ace), showed up in Afghanistan and South Korea late last year. The U.S. Air Force admitted that this was the RQ-170, a high altitude reconnaissance UAV developed in secret by Lockheed-Martin. It appears to have a 21 meter wingspan. The RQ-170 is believed to be a replacement for the U-2, and a supplemental aircraft for the larger Global Hawk (which has a 42 meter wingspan.)






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