Unmanned Aircraft Smart, But Trigger Finger is Human
By Otto Kreisher, Special Correspondent
From the Navy League’s SEAPOWER magazine, forwarded by 1stAdmPAO
The drive to develop pilotless aircraft that can replace manned planes on the most dangerous, or the tedious, combat missions has produced some important technological advances. However, while they may be unmanned, the authority for them to release weapons is likely to remain in human hands.
In mid-April, an unmanned Y-shaped jet built by Boeing dropped a 250-pound smart bomb that came within feet of its target at the Edwards Air Force Base range in California. A year earlier, a kite-like robot produced by Northrop Grumman flew a precision approach and touched down for what would have been a four-wire trap on a simulated carrier deck at Naval Air Weapons Center in China Lake, Calif.
The two unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) that performed maneuvers normally requiring highly trained pilots are the early products of an ambitious program called the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS), directed by the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA).
It is “the largest unmanned systems development ever undertaken” by the Pentagon, according to Michael Francis, director of the J-UCAS program at DARPA. The Pentagon plans to spend more than $4 billion during the next five years to develop and test larger and more capable versions of the Boeing and Northrop UCAVs for the Air Force and the Navy.
The Department of Defense also will produce a highly integrated complex of computer software, called the Common Operating System, that will manage all the systems and functions of the individual air vehicles and their control stations, and tie them into the military’s global networks of sensors and command-and-control assets.
The program’s goal, Francis said, is to allow the two services, by the end of the decade, to make informed decisions on whether to produce one or more models of the unmanned aircraft to conduct a variety of missions. The Air Force’s primary need is for deep strike, suppression of enemy air defenses and electronic attack. The Navy’s initial interest is for persistent reconnaissance and surveillance missions. But the Common Operating System and both of the airframes are expected to have the inherent capability to perform any of those missions with little or no changes.
The services’ decision could trigger a procurement process worth tens of billions of dollars and could change the nature of air combat. “We want to advance an unmanned capability that augments the manned force in the most difficult combat situations,” Francis said.
Navy Capt. Ralph Alderson, DARPA’s deputy director for the Boeing program, said unmanned systems make sense because “the removal of human restrictions really gives us an edge in several areas.” Those include longer missions because it can carry fuel instead of a pilot and human support systems, and “endurance is limited by the machine, not human needs,” he said.
An unmanned aircraft also has the potential for greater survivability because it can withstand higher G forces and have a smaller radar cross section without a cockpit, he explained.
The U.S. military experimented with an armed Ryan Firebee drone during the Vietnam War, but never used it in combat because it was limited by line-of-sight communications. But MQ-1 Predator UAVs fired Hellfire missiles in combat in Afghanistan, and more recently in Iraq, when satellite relays allowed a remote operator to find a target and shoot.
In 1998, after earlier technology experiments in UCAVs, DARPA gave contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to propose concepts for an Air Force UCAV. Boeing won the development contract on March 24, 1999. Just 38 months later, the X-45A, a 12,000-pound tailless robot, flew for the first time.
Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman used its own funds to continue work on its UCAV offering, the X-47A Pegasus, hoping to attract the Navy’s interest. Northrop Grumman was joined by Lockheed Martin, its partner in the Joint Strike Fighter program. The gamble paid off on June 30, 2000, when DARPA awarded $2 million contracts to Northrop Grumman and Boeing to develop a Navy UCAV.
DARPA’s programs gained greater status later that year when Congress, led by Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner, R-VA., decreed in the fiscal 2001 defense authorization that by 2010 one-third of the deep-strike aircraft should be unmanned.
Then on April 28, 2003, on Pentagon orders to start over with a joint program, DARPA awarded Boeing $140 million and Northrop Grumman $160 million to develop larger, stealthy UCAVs with longer range and a bigger payload for both services.
The unmanned craft is expected to fly at about Mach .8, at altitudes up to 35,000 feet with at least a 1,300-nautical mile combat radius and a 4,500-pound payload.
To manage the new effort, last October DARPA formed the Joint Systems Management Office, modeled on the Joint Strike Fighter program.
The UCAV effort gained another endorsement in February when a Defense Science Board task force studying the needs of the future strategic strike force advocated development of a family of stealthy, “unmanned, global surveillance/strike systems” for the Air Force and the Navy
Working under its initial contract, Northrop Grumman flew its 5,500-pound X-47A for the first time on Feb. 23, 2003, ending with a simulated carrier landing. The landing was guided by the Shipboard-relative Global Positioning Satellite System, an adaptation of the Joint Precision Approach and Landing System Naval Air Systems Command developed to allow hands-off carrier landings by manned aircraft. Northrop Grumman then stopped work on Pegasus and started working on the joint program. That one X-47A flight was necessary to show the Navy that an aircraft that “looks like a Doritos chip” could make a precision carrier landing, said Scott Winship, the Northrop Grumman UCAS program director.
Boeing continued to fly its UCAV and after an earlier test of its ability to release a weapon, on April 18 the X-45 relayed targeting data to an inert GPS-guided bomb and scored a near miss on the target from 35,000 feet. That was “a very significant milestone,” said Darryl Davis, Boeing’s X-45 program manager. In its news release announcing the feat, Boeing said the bomb was dropped “under human supervision but without human piloting.”
That statement reflects a key feature of the UCAV program: No matter how advanced its technology, the unmanned warplane will not be allowed to release a weapon without human authorization. Although the UCAV’s computers will have “as much autonomy as possible,” Francis said, “for some functions, the human computer is better and in some, like the moral imperative, the human computer is the only option. I don’t think that, in the rules of engagement I’m familiar with, the robot gets to make lethal decisions.”
For the next phase of the program, Boeing is building the X-45C, a much larger craft that “is designed to take affordable stealth to the next level and to provide the most persistent, longest-range tactical sized aircraft in the modern Air Force inventory,” Alderson said. Powered by a General Electric engine, the 45C will have a gross weight of about 36,000 pounds, a wingspan of nearly 50 feet and carry up to 4,500 pounds of ordnance in two weapons bays. The concept recently passed its midterm design review and is expected to make its first flight in 2006.
The Northrop Grumman-Lockheed Martin team now is working on the X-47B, an even larger craft that will weigh more than 45,000 pounds. To improve its low-speed handling and endurance, wing extensions will be added to the “Doritos chip,” giving it a wingspan of 62 feet. The X-47B — which will be powered by a Pratt and Whitney engine — recently passed a systems requirement review and also expects first flight in 2006.
Both of the UCAVs will use the Common Operating Systems for internal and external management. Both will have high levels of autonomous operations and advanced target recognition capabilities to reduce the workload on the remote human “manager,” the program officials said. That autonomy is important because each manager is expected to be responsible for multiple UCAVs during a mission.
Each of the UCAV teams will produce at least three aircraft, which will go through extensive operational evaluations starting in 2008, leading to production decisions by the Air Force and the Navy, Francis said. A spokesman for Warner said the senator believes the goal of fielding one-third of the deep-strike force with unmanned aircraft by 2010 “is still achievable and he will do everything he can do legislatively to achieve that.”
DARPA, Boeing and Northrop Grumman consider that goal worthy, but do not consider the 2010 date achievable, given that operational evaluations do not begin until 2008.
Otto Kreisher is a correspondent for the Copley News Service