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.