Warplanes: The TacAir Empire Strikes Back


February 21, 2006: On February 15, 2006, the U.S. Navy cut all funding for the Joint-Unmanned Combat Aerial System (J-UCAS) program, and called for the program's "restructuring."

Envisioned as a family of US Air Force and Navy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles approximately the size of today's single-seat fighter, J-UCAS was to have been a platform to perform both attack and Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance functions. However, as it had become clear to the Navy that any such vehicles would have to have an endurance and payload capacity far in excess of what could be accomplished with foreseeable unmanned technology, the need for aerial refueling became clear - a capability for unmanned aircraft not yet on the horizon. J-UCAS was to have been ready by 2018 with the ability to carry a 4,500 pound payload (weapons and sensors) as least 2,300 kilometers.

Another perceived shortcoming of the program is hesitation in developing an unmanned aerial vehicle suitable for conventional launch from and recovery aboard a moving aircraft carrier, despite earlier claims that such technology was realizable. The February 15 press conference tossed a wet blanket on this concept, despite the unmanned Firescout helicopter having recently successfully completed a series of vertical takeoffs and landings aboard "the boat." The Navy noted that, while J-UCAS has completed approximately five dozen test flights of the Boeing X-45A, including attack of simulated ground air defenses and launching of precision guided weapons, the Air Force has recently become less enthusiastic about the J-UCAS concept despite the relative ease in conducting unmanned landings and takeoffs from far longer runways located on land.

The Navy noted several reasons killing J-UCAS; (1) new information suggesting that dollar savings on unmanned aircraft may have been overstated by as much as a factor of three, and (2) concern regarding the likelihood of creating an unmanned in-flight autonomy and mission planning flexibility. Both remarks lead one to believe that the "TacAir Mafia" has had a hand in this latest program development. For one, the greatest benefit touted by the Department of Defense for unmanned aircraft, is removing the chance of crew fatality, in a time when the press and public have wholly unrealistically come to expect a clean, "zero casualties" combat. Also, service resistance to unmanned tacair aircraft is also a factor. It takes approximately three years to train one air crewman to full qualification and a place at the top of the armed forces warfare pyramid. When the Navy began introducing the two-seat tactical aircraft such as the F-4, F-14 and A-6 to replace the F-8, A-1D, and A-4, there was a great deal of resistance by the pilot community to the addition of the naval flight officer/weapons officer to what had been a single-man tactical community. This resulted in NFOs being second-class citizens for their first ten years in the fleet (1964-1974), ineligible for command and essentially unpromotable above the grade of LT (O-3). As late as the 1990s, this attitude persisted among some senior pilot admirals. The idea of an unmanned tactical aircraft clearly fills many flag officers with a combination of contempt and fear. As in the special warfare community, military tactical aviation is one of the few surviving warfare specialties that harks back to the single combat warrior mindset.

The Navy most recently had announced plans to begin fielding the smallest, simplest UAVS by 2008, with the most complex ones becoming available to the fleet by 2018 and has begun testing a small UAV that is launched from the sonobouy launch tubes of the P-3C and H-60 aircraft. The three-foot-long, folding-wing, gasoline engine powered Coyote UAV provides 90 minutes of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. In testing, the Coyote has been carrying off-the-shelf electro-optical and infrared cameras, but these will likely be replaced before it becomes operational with the Navy. Its flight is controlled via line-of-sight radio link (VHF or UHF), as far as 22 miles from the P-3 or helicopter controlling it. Two years ago it had not even been envisioned.

The J-UCAS cancellation makes waves that ripple out to the rest of the fleet. The US Navy is still officially looking at upgradeable unmanned systems to conduct persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions that will serve to multiply the capabilities and ocean coverage of the its recently announced P-3C replacement, the P-8A Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA). Testing of a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance capability has been ongoing, since the Navy's most recent estimate of needing a minimum of 108 P-8s will require an additional 50 or more unmanned surveillance aircraft - some to be controlled from airborne P-8s -- in order to cover the world's oceans as well as the Navy's 290 or so P-3C aircraft did as recently as five years ago. J-UCAS had not been identified as a precursor for such a UAV, but its suspension leaves a big question mark on the BAMS concept. The Navy has been studying different persistent surveillance concepts with several different unmanned aircraft but comprehensive results have not been announced although they are to be rolled into the BAMS program after completing simulation and architecture views. - K.B. Sherman


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