Warplanes: May 24, 2000


THE FUTURE OF AIR COMBAT: The Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are engaged in a $110 million technology demonstration project with Boeing (which has invested $21 million of its own money in the project). The object is to produce the first workable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, or UCAV. The first two prototypes are now being assembled. This robot aircraft will be 26 feet long; it looks something like "a horseshoe crab with wings". The program has gotten a major boost from recent technological breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, and in new sensors including radar, infrared, and electro-optical. Costing $10 million each (a fraction of the cost of a more capable manned fighter), UCAV will be in service in 2010. (Many in Congress and the Pentagon want to spend more money to bring the UCAV into service a few years earlier.) Senator Warner, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wants 1/3 of attack aircraft to be UCAV by the end of the next decade. UCAVs, costing less and avoiding the need to risk the death or capture of a pilot, will be used to attack the most dangerous targets. This will include enemy air defenses (clearing the way for manned aircraft) or key targets in heavily- defended areas (where it might be politically difficult for entire squadrons of tactical fighters to bomb their way through layers of defenses). It could also include attacks in chemically or biologically contaminated areas. An aircraft without the weight of a pilot and his support systems can be smaller, stealthier, and more maneuverable. Pilot training for a manned aircraft is vastly more expensive and time consuming than for a UCAV controller, and airlines are unlikely to recruit controllers to fly passengers from Denver to Seattle. UCAVs, unlike manned fighters, can be stored for extended periods while controllers train on simulators or a few flying aircraft.

A typical mission by a UCAV would involve a pre-programmed flight on a particular route to a predetermined point, at which time the pre-programmed weapons would be launched toward pre-selected targets. A human controller, probably in a ground station but possibly in a manned aircraft, would be there to reprogram the UCAV "on the fly" if something happened during a mission to change the pre-set plan, such as a previously unexpected enemy fighter or air defense installation. The UCAV might even be programmed to ask its human controller for advice or confirmation at critical points in a mission or if problems were detected. The human controller might even examine the target (through the UCAV's sensors) to see if civilians have moved into the target area, delaying or canceling the attack to avoid politically embarrassing civilian casualties. After more experience with the UCAVs, the Air Force might launch them on search-and-bomb missions against targets not yet located. UCAVs might be modified to carry air-to-air missiles, but aerial dogfighting by UCAVs, however, is probably another generation away.

Each UCAV could carry two weapons, each up to 1,000 pounds. This would probably be laser-guided or GPS-guided weapons, as these are more cost effective than cheaper unguided bombs.
Supporters point to the success of the Hunter and Predator drones over Kosovo in 1999.

Opponents of the program (mostly fearing that it will inspire Congress to cancel the F-22 or Joint Strike Fighter) express concern that the technology may not be mature enough for such quick deployment. Others fear that UCAV will set off a civil war inside the Air Force between the manned and unmanned communities, much as the bomber and missile factions squared off in the 1950s. And there will always be concerns that the enemy could crack into the control circuits and take over the UCAVs, crashing them or sending them back to attack their own bases. The Air Force "pilots union" remains lukewarm (or flatly opposed) to the UCAV, fearing it will put them out of a job. One pilot, only half-joking, noted that it would be hard to pick up girls in bars by announcing that they had sat at a computer terminal and watched a drone aircraft bomb a target.--Stephen V Cole




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