November 23, 2018:
In late 2018 a Chinese firm showed off the CH-7, a delta-shaped jet-propelled UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) that was offered for sale to existing Middle Eastern customers for the current CH series of UAVs, which all look like the American Predator/Reaper models.
The CH-7 is similar (in size and shape) to several earlier American UAV designs. One, the RQ-170, entered service in 2007 as a stealthy reconnaissance UAV. Only about twenty were built and in 2011 one crashed in Iran and was captured largely intact. China, an ally of Iran, probably got access to the wreckage and the technology therein. But there have been many other American jet-powered UAV designs, none of which, except the RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-170 that entered service. The RQ-4 first flew in 1998 and was rushed into service after September 11, 2001, and is now exported. China developed similar models of very large UAVs, some of them for export.
The U.S. also pioneered the development of jet-powered combat UAVs but never put one into service. The main reason was that the propeller-driven UAVs were slower (good for endurance and reconnaissance), easier and cheaper to maintain and inherently more reliable.
The 15 ton the U.S. Navy X-47B UCAV made its first flight February 2011. 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 X-47B was first displayed in 2008 and indicated the U.S. was far ahead of other nations in UCAV development. This energized activity in Russia, Europe and China to develop similar aircraft. Only China was quick to get similar UAVs flying and offering them to export customers.
The United States developed several different jet powered UCAVs starting in the late 1990s. This included Predator C (or Avenger) which was a jet-powered version of the Reaper that flew in 2009. In 2003 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 had 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 UCAVs are stealthy and can operate completely on their own (including landing and takeoff, under software control). These 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 canceled, or were headed in that direction.
Several years before he X-47B first flew, the X-45A passed tests for formation flying and dropping a JDAM (actually the new 130 kg/285 pound SDB version). An X-45C could carry eight SDB (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 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 canceled its X-45 program in 2007 and said it was looking into different UCAV designs.
The one topic no one wanted to touch was air-to-air combat for UAVs. 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 UCAVs 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 autonomous combat UAVs start operating, and that will be during the 2020s, if not sooner, 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 foreign aviation commanders agree and the Chinese have been the most aggressive in putting the new technology into service. The CH-7 is but the first of many new UCAV designs the Chinese have and unlike the United States the Chinese are less restrictive when it comes to exporting new designs because the Chinese know they have lots of other new designs under development and export customers are more likely to use their Chinese UCAVs in combat.