Combat Drones: Clouds on the Horizon for Pilot-Less Bombers

Article excerpt

After years of steady growth in funding, development and operational use, unmanned aerial vehicles have begun to rival--and, in some cases, exceed--the capability of manned aircraft.

The rapid maturing of military UAVs into armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles was seen in one of the most promising armed drone programs, the joint unmanned air combat .system, or J-UCAS.

"Supporting military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, unmanned aircraft have transformed the current battle space with innovative tactics, techniques and procedures." reads the foreword to the defense Department's 25-year UAV roadmap, published in August 2005. "Unmanned air vehicles not only provide persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but also very accurate and timely direct and indirect fires."

This blending of the previously stove-piped missions--intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and direct fires--is one of the major strengths of one of the most popular UAVs, the General Atomics Predator. Predators armed with Hellfire missiles can orbit a battlefield undetected, for hours at a time. They can sock time-sensitive targets with day and night sensors--and kill these targets within minutes.

Predators debuted in combat over Bosnia in the mid-1990s. In 2002, an armed Predator operated by the Central Intelligence Agency spotted and killed senior al-Qaida leader Abu Ali in Yemen. Within a few years after the Ali assassination, armed Predators had migrated to the Air Force and were conducting limited dose-air support missions over Iraq.

The new Predator B model features a more powerful engine and a larger airframe to boost the bird's combat load. The B model's multi-mission MQ-1 designation--versus the original's RQ-1 for reconnaissance--reflects the ascendance of the Predator's armed capability.

For all their successes, armed Predators lack the performance and weapons payload to take out well-defended targets on a high-intensity battlefield--and survive. Over western Iraq, where firefights between Marines and insurgents are a daily occurrence and the threat from ground fire and shoulder-fired missiles is real. Marine Corps and Air Force manned fighters are providing the most air support.

These manned platforms are equipped with mounted sensor pods that give them many of the same ISR capabilities as Predators, albeit with less endurance.

But in the military's stable of UAVs, armed Predators are only a stopgap--an experimental measure pending the introduction of purpose-designed combat drones--known as joint unmanned combat aerial vehicles. A J-UCAS drone would have traded some of the Predator's surveillance and reconnaissance chops for the performance and survivability to supplement Air Force F-16s and A-10s and Navy F/A18s in the close-air support and battlefield interdiction missions.

J-UCAS began its life at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1998. Both Boeing and Northrop Grumman built jet-powered demonstrators: the X-45C and the X-47B, respectively. The X-45 was equipped for in-flight refueling and optimized for Air Force missions that demanded a high degree of stealth. The X-47 was less stealthy, but longer-ranged and designed to operate from Navy aircraft carrier decks.

After seven years of successful design and testing, in November 2005, the Defense Department transferred J-UCAS to a joint Air Force and Navy office and scheduled a fly-off between the demonstrators.

But then the February 2006 quadrennial defense review directed the Navy to wholly take over J-UCAS management. In the 2007 defense budget, the Air Force redirected the J-UCAS funding to a new, vaguely defined, "next-generation long-range strike" development program that, according to observers, is likely to include a mix of unmanned and manned bomber aircraft.

Just months after its graduation from fringe research status to major procurement program, J-UCAS had been downgraded to Navy UCAS, or N-UCAS. …