Monday, 26 July 2004

In the tracks of the Predator: combat UAV programs are gathering speed

In the tracks of the Predator: combat UAV programs are gathering speed
The next generation of manned-strike aircraft are most likely to be accompanied by unmanned combat aerial vehicles [UCAV]. They will be utilised for high value targets like command centres, plus dangerous missions like suppression of enemy air defences[SEAD].
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In the tracks of the Predator: combat UAV programs are gathering speed


The term "unmanned combat air vehicle" (UCAV) was coined less than a decade ago, but armed, unmanned aircraft are in service and the subject of major programs worldwide. The biggest single effort, the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) managed by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is budgeted at more than US$4 billion over the next five years. DARPA is also developing the ambitious Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft (UCAR) for the US Army. The French government is pushing the formation of a Dassault-led UCAV project, named Neuron, and Dassault has formally joined forces with Saab and EADS to fly a demonstrator by 2009.

At the same time, the pioneering MQ-1 Predator remains in combat use, and is being followed by the larger, much more heavily armed MQ-9 Predator B. Other UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) - including the US Navy's (USN's) Fire Scout and the Army's forthcoming Extended Range/Multi-Purpose (ER/MP) vehicle - are being developed to carry weapons.

The majority of these UCAV programs place heavy emphasis on network-centric warfare (NCW). J-UCAS is the Pentagon's flagship NCW program and the UCAR is intended to be accessible to any communications node on the battlefield. Sweden's SHARC (Swedish Highly Advanced Research Configuration) UCAV demonstrator has already flown simulated missions controlled via a commercial-type Internet link, experience which will be transferred into the Neuron program.

Under the J-UCAS program, the two original X-45A demonstrators built by Boeing are continuing their flight tests. In mid-April, one of the X-45As became the first purpose-built UCAV to release a precision-guided weapon, launching an inert GPS (Global Positioning System)-inertial Small Smart Bomb and hitting a ground target at the USN's China Lake research facility. The human operator confirmed the identification of the target and authorized the UCAV to arm and release the weapon, but the X-45A maneuvered on to the target, opened its weapon bay and dropped the bomb autonomously with the operator in a supervisory role. The aircraft was operating at 35,000ft and Mach 0.67 (M0.67), and the weapon hit the target.

Next, the X-45As will prepare for two-ship operations with a series of tests involving one X-45A and the program's T-33 surrogate aircraft, which carries X-45A navigation and communications systems together with an observer and a safety pilot. This will pave the way for tests of coordinated tactics with two unmanned vehicles.

The X-45A represents the original concept of the UCAV as a small aircraft, stealthy by virtue of its size as well as its shape, and inexpensive enough to be 'attritable': losing the aircraft would be like the loss of a Predator today, not a major event. The UCAV would also be stored until required for a live exercise or combat operations, and would be airlifted into the theater of operations in its storage container.

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