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January 14, 2010

Northrop Grumman's X-47B in a carrier landing. Concept art by Darpa.

Just an experimental post on one of my favorite subjects:

Unmanned Airpower Ascendant

Blogger and Journalist David Axe insists American airpower isn’t dying, just changing! At the crux of all this transformation are the new unmanned aerial vehicles:

Post-2011 U.S. fighters will include:

* Boeing’s F-15, which is available in a semi-stealthy version that is longer-legged, heavier-lifting and cheaper than the F-35.
* Lockheed Martin’s F-16, which includes the advanced “E” model.
* Boeing’s F/A-18E/F, the backbone of the Navy’s current force, fitted with one of the world’s most sophisticated fighter radars.
* Lockheed’s F-35, of course.
* General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper drone, which last year the Pentagon said should be counted as a fighter, for it performs certain kinds of ground-attack missions better than any existing aircraft.
* The Air Force’s new light fighter, and potentially a Navy version of the same.

Fighters in active development post-2011, but probably not yet fielded, will include General Atomics’ stealthy Avenger robot and Northrop Grumman’s X-47, roughly a naval equivalent of the Avenger. The Avenger could fold into an ambitious Air Force “roadmap” that anticipates several classes of unmanned aircraft, big and small, together capable of almost all Air Force missions. Plus, both the Navy and Air Force are mulling new manned fighter programs that could begin to take shape in the next few years.

The Avenger sounds intriguing, since it is based on the proven Reaper platform, but more on that in a minute. Here also is where we may get America’s newest bomber:

Finally, Gates only deferred the Air Force’s new bomber; he didn’t cancel it. The program should relaunch shortly, perhaps feeding off tech developed for the Air Force’s recently-unveiled, stealthy spy drone, the RQ-170.

Also there are those who claim that UAVs have yet to face a “real” enemy armed with belts of surface to air missiles, and is only worthwhile against poorly armed insurgents. The truth is drones were born in the midst of combat, in order to spare the manned jets from coming into harm! USAF Firebees were sent against tough SAM armed nations like North Vietnam, and also used by the Israelis against Egyptian targets in the Sinai during the 1973 October War. In the 1980s, Israel flew Scout UAVs against the formidable Syrian Bekaa Valley defenses, that previously destroyed American carrier bombers.

So, it isn’t the new unmanned technology at risk from SAMs, but the latter pushing the manned jet out of price ranges, forcing the older technology into a cost prohibitive mode with stealth and other pricey countermeasures. But the future of the drones is secure.


The Unmanned Carrier

Speaking of Avenger, here is an earlier War is Boring article on the same subject:

General Atomics’ Predator-C, [is] America’s latest killer unmanned aerial vehicle, had first test flights in the first half of April. Named “Avenger” by the manufacturer, the new drone is a huge leap in performance and capability over previous Predator UAVs. Not only is Avenger stealthy, it has a higher operational altitude, bigger payload and a tailhook to facilitate carrier landings.

That last sentence caught our eye seeing as how we are always looking at Aircraft Carrier Alternatives, and that includes their naval aircraft. The design is also very stealthy, unlike previous versions of the Predator, making it a good match with the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 JSF. It has an internal weapons bay that further reduces radar signature, capable of loads of 3000 lbs.


Speaking of Naval Drones

Ares blog has some new pics of a UCAS X-47B which we have pictured above, described here:

These photos of the first UCAS-D are in a rare jaunt from its hangar when the aircraft is undergoing a tow taxi test at the U.S. Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif.. As of last week, the aircraft had not taxied under its own power. The company has completed a taxi readiness review with the U.S. Navy, according to a program official. A self-powered taxi test is slated for this month.

Go to the link for a peak.


Unmanned Eyes in the Sky  

For the deployment of airborne early warning aircraft, like the American E-2 Hawkeye, it is almost essential that you have large deck carriers. The discussion for E-2 alternatives considering their lack of flexibility in launch platforms was the subject of recent discussion within the comments, where I proposed the following:  

The E-2 Hawkeye is a wonderful capability, one of those irreplaceable weapons from the Cold War whose future successor is obviously itself. As long as we are able to deploy it I insists we keep at it, but apparently it can only be used in the presence of $10 billion warships, so there is a mark against its future. At some point then it may have to be replaced, the question is, with what?
Supposing then in the future each warship carried its own AEW in the form of UAVs like Scan Eagle, though some have said they lack capability, the required huge radome as on the American E-2 means you have to use a big deck to launch such a fairly large aircraft. But I think if you increase the numbers of aerial spies, you would compensate for the lack of a high powered single plane. Perhaps it would more than compensate because the more “eyes in the skies” you have the more likely of detecting a threat that much sooner.
Radar is getting better. We now can place the magnificent Aegis system in ships as small as corvettes where once only a 10,000 ton cruiser would do. I think we can improve our fleet defense by depending on more smaller platforms like UAVs without loss of capability. Perhaps we aren’t there yet but we are improving constantly. It can only be a matter of time.

UAVs for fleet AEW? Not as far-fetched an idea as you might imagine according to this post on Sea Based anti-ballistic missile defense from Aviation Week:  

In the Stellar Daggers series of Aegis BMD tests in March, pairs of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying close to the launch points provided early, high-precision tracks to the shipboard fire-control system. Israel is also working on UAV-carried BMD sensors.
One key to making UAV-carried sensors work has been the rapid improvement in IR sensor performance, weight, cost and processing, which makes it possible to install a high-end, long-wave IR sensor on a small UAV. Another is an affordable long-endurance UAV (like IAI’s Eitan or the U.S. Reaper) which operates at high altitudes where IR performance is best.  

If I understand this correctly, the UAVs are being used to relay the tracking signals of the Aegis, enhancing its range and increasing its effectiveness. Of course targeting is different from early warning, but not that different, and if the same principle can work for search radar, here would be another tether cut by the surface warship from the tyranny of naval airpower. 


8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jed permalink
    January 14, 2010 8:09 pm

    Dont forget – unmanned does not mean autonomous – at least not completely autonomous, and not right now anyway, so you better not take on an enemy with any idea about Electronic Warfare – interception of signals strike a chord with anyone ?

    Jamming uplinks and downlinks, jamming and attacking GPS, cyberwarfare attacks on the network infrastructure – there are lots of vectors which currently avail themselves for a reasonably sophisticated adversary to attack UAV’s.

  2. philbob permalink
    January 14, 2010 12:47 pm

    Im supprised the F-22 is not in is initial mix becuase it will be in service for years to come. I also agree on betting all aviation on Unmanned until our infrastructure is in place.

    NGB mix of unmanned and F-35 tech…hopefully!

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 14, 2010 10:18 am

    ““unmanned” is a fad.”

    40 years and counting. Some fad!

    But I see room for airships in the mix too, and unmanned ones!

  4. January 14, 2010 10:01 am

    “unmanned” is a fad. not to say that great strides and advantages haven’t been gained; or, that the fad has no legs. but, like “LCS” is faddish in it’s one-size-fits-all way……the current emphasis on UN-MANNED aerial vehicles lacks in major ways.
    First, there is always the issues of maintaining “conectivity”; re: jamming, or loss of satellites, or impairment of the centric safety Net. Second, the AI needed for increasingly complex missions is just not up to snuff yet; and, is not likely to get there in a long time.

    The entire rationale for “unmanned” is wrapped up in two aims: increased range/endurance….and keeping a man out of harms’ way.
    Both can be addressed in good order, using airships.

    (those who would hasten to point out the supposed vulnerabilities of airships; only demonstrate continuance to think of airships in an 19th Century reference) Modern airships can/should be light-years beyond the glorified elongated balloons of the past 150 years.

    Airships have range and endurance that no other aircraft can match. Airships can carry larger payloads than any other aircraft. Airships can operate totaly VTOL. Airships can be as stealty as a
    B-2. Act as flying aircraft carriers (for those Navy UAVs mentioned), perform anti submarine/anti mine warfare, act as logistic vessels, act in Broad Area Marine Surveillance, deploy boarding parties.

    And, unlike “unmanned”; airships can keep a pilot and brains and decision making in the aircraft. No UAV technology will ever match that.

    It’s always been a part of the Fleet. Needs to be again.

  5. B.Smitty permalink
    January 14, 2010 9:57 am

    Sarcastic ShockwaveLover,

    Why buy F-15SEs when, for just a bit more, you can buy F-22s?

    F-16E/F sure, they can be significantly cheaper.

    I believe we are pumping out Reapers as fast as we can make them already.

    The A-10 production line is gone. Reconstituting it would be expensive.

    The F-35B is actually my least favorite version. It has the highest risk of failure and the least capability (other than STOVL). The F-35A is the least risky and should be the cheapest.

  6. Jed permalink
    January 14, 2010 9:01 am

    Mike said: “If I understand this correctly, the UAVs are being used to relay the tracking signals of the Aegis, enhancing its range and increasing its effectiveness”

    thats not how I read the paragraph above in your ‘call out’ box – UAV’s flying close to the launch point ‘see’ the launch with their IR sensors and provide an early indication of the launch track (bearing information) into the network – this helps Aegis find the incomer – so I don’t think its anything to do with comms relay.

    Of course, the I think BAMS has comms relay as part of its requirements, which could be used to enhance CEC to enhance BMD in this way …. (sorry, just wanted to fit all the acronyms into one sentence)

  7. Sarcastic ShockwaveLover permalink
    January 14, 2010 8:39 am

    I’d be very happy if the US started buying F-15SEs right now, but due to the complications of international participation, the JSF is likely to eat up all the funds. Start pumping out Reapers as fast as they can make them, maybe build some more A-10s as well. And get the F-35B going as fast possible. That’s the only F-35 variant I’m happy to keep.

  8. Distiller permalink
    January 14, 2010 8:33 am

    I’m very much a fan of the unmanned option. But before betting the fleet on it, I want to see a robust orbital and airborne datacom relay infrastructure.

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