Companies in both the U.S. and Europe are forging ahead with technology demonstrations for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), but the military has yet to establish exactly what it wants from its future UCAVS. While this question remains unanswered, the development of production UCAVs will be delayed and budgets withheld.
Planners drawing up concepts of operations for UCAVs are being bombarded by many influences that often are conflicting. Current operational experience from Afghanistan and Iraq is also playing a large part in defining future UCAV missions. Among the problems facing planners is simply the scale of the technological promises being offered by the UCAV, and whether these promises can translate into a mature product on time. What began as a stealthy, short-range vehicle for one-off attacks in a high-threat environment–as typified by the SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) mission–has now changed to a vehicle that offers long endurance in battle zones much farther away than originally envisioned, in turn allowing it to adopt other missions, such as electronic attack and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance).
One of the chief benefits of an unmanned system is “digital acuity,” or the ability of the system to remain as sharp after 30-plus hours of flight as it was when it took off. To leverage this advantage implies that UCAVs must grow larger so that they can fly for longer periods, carry more weapons for increased combat persistence and be equipped with more capable sensors for ISR tasks.
U.S. Air Force experience over Afghanistan has reinforced the need for longer range, while current close-air-support missions over Iraq highlight the need for persistence over the target area, especially in the ISR and close-air-support roles. In addition to increasing the size of the UCAV, designers must develop automated in-flight refueling to satisfy range/endurance needs.
There are many other challenges: the UCAV must be fully integrated into the emerging transformational communication architecture–or networkcentric warfare. This implies the provision of much greater data-flow rates for command and control purposes, to serve ISR and targeting needs, and to deconflict UCAVs from manned aircraft. But increased communications conflict inherently with the stealth properties of the UCAV.
Deconfliction from manned “friendlies” remains one of the key challenges to planners, especially as the need for dynamic, time-sensitive targeting increases in importance. Corridors or altitude bands can easily be assigned to the UCAV for preplanned missions, but if the vehicle is being dynamically tasked then deconfliction has to be handled equally dynamically.
Furthermore, it is not just the vehicles that have to be deconflicted, it is also the weapons they are releasing. If, say, UCAVs are operating at high altitude, any weapons they launch will have to fall through the airspace below, which may be occupied by manned aircraft. Current deconfliction tracking systems require continuous datalinking, which by its nature imposes stealth issues.
To establish definitive requirements most effectively, the USAF has introduced the CRRA (capabilities review and risk assessment), a process that shifts the emphasis of procurement decision-making from a program-by-program basis to a capabilities- based review focused on the effects such capabilities bring to the battle. For the USAF, under CRRA, a short-term plan is beginning to crystallize for a vehicle that focuses on SEAD. Developers are also exploring additional mission areas such as ISR and communications relay, but an overall decision that narrows the vehicle requirements is needed soon if the UCAV program is to stay on track.
In the longer term, the USAF is studying concepts such as an “Arsenal UCAV”–a long-range B-2-size vehicle that can loiter with a heavy weapons load for a period of perhaps 100 hours, and a “Loyal Wingman” vehicle that can be fully integrated into a flight of manned aircraft to augment the number and type of weapons available.