Naval Air: November 4, 2003


The U.S. Navy is beginning to seriously think of how to use UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles), even while they are still testing the first models. While the X-47B UCAV currently under development will have a lot of computing power on board, there will still need to be a human in the loop for most missions. Current thinking puts the X-47B "squadron commander" in a E-2C AWACS aircraft for running patrol and reconnaissance missions, or in a two seat F-18, with the UCAV commander in the back seat, for strike missions. While the navy likes to downplay turning UCAVs loose on their own, these aircraft have more "intelligence" built into them than cruise missiles, which have long gone out on bombing missions by themselves. The only difference with the UCAV is that it will return after bombing its target. For this reason, bombing missions will probably be treated like current cruise missile attacks. But for more complex missions, like attacks against heavily defended targets, a "strike package" will go in. This would consist of a dozen or more UCAVs equipped for different jobs, under the command of one or two F-18s with human controllers on board. The mission would be carefully planned on mission simulators (that look like very realistic flight simulators, which is exactly what they are). Once all the details of who goes where and when are worked out on the mission planners, the instructions for each UCAV are transferred to a memory stick (or just use a wireless network). The UCAV commander then goes to each of his UCAVs, plugs in the mission details and sees that each UCAV is equipped with the right special equipment (for fire control, electronic warfare or reconnaissance) and weapons (air-to-air-missiles, smart bombs or anti-radar missiles.) The UCAV will probably have a port that the armaments crew can plug into so that the right equipment, fuel and weapons load can be confirmed. The mission commander also transfers the mission planner data to his own control computer in the back seat of the F-18 or work station on the E-2C. Once the manned and UCAV aircraft are launched and in formation, they follow the plan, until something unexpected happens. At that point, the UCAV commander will not actually control the UCAVs, but issue them orders, as he would manned aircraft. A strike package would have two or more UCAVs in the lead, equipped to take out enemy air defenses with anti-radiation and smart bombs, as well as electronic warfare devices. The main body of the strike package would contain about six UCAVs loaded with bombs, four to hit assigned targets, and perhaps two as spares in case one of the designated bombers gets shot down or missies its target. The F-18 would fly with the main body. One or two UCAVs would fly above the main body to defend against enemy fighters, while another one or two UCAVs would fly low to provide protection. One or two UCAVs, equipped with several reconnaissance sensors (high resolution cameras, heat and electronic sensors) might be in the rear to make a quick recon pass on the bombed targets to collect information on how successful the hits were. The navy doesn't expect to have the X-47B ready for rehearsing combat operations for another 3-4 years. First the UCAV has to prove it is stable in flight and able to land and take off from a carrier. The X-47B is using off-the-shelf components as much as possible (engines, landing gear, avionics) to keep the price down. The X-47B still looks like it's going to be a 15 ton aircraft costing about $30 million each. If the X-47B becomes too expensive, and not reliable enough, it will be cheaper to rely on long range missiles for many of its missions. 


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