U.S. developing robotic combat aircraft

By DAVID C. WALSH, Special to UPI  |  May 24, 2002 at 12:34 AM
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Project managers for Boeing Corp. and the Pentagon¹s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said they were pleased with the first flight of the X-45A -- a robotic combat aircraft.

They said Thursday that advanced technology on the fielded version of the plane should be able to deal with the challenge of sending the aircraft into a crowded ³battle space.² The jet plane, the first of a new family dubbed Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) was launched from Edwards Air Force Base, CA. and will join the Air Force inventory in 2006-08.

UPI asked Air Force Col. Michael Leahy, now attached to DARPA, if any interface was expected between pilots of current Air Force warplanes and ³battle managers² who will launch several X-45s at a time. ³Yes, there will be,² he said during a live, national telephone hookup with reporters. ³If you think of UCAVs -- and you may have the four of them that have a battle manager; up to maybe four of those battle managers are supporting a strike commander. That strike commander will interface with the rest of the force package, no different than a strike lead would for a manned package today.² He said the Air Force intended to ³put these (UCAVs) seamlessly into the force structure; they will be on the same runways, operating in the same bases, in the same patterns and be part of the strike packages that go out. And exactly what roles and missions we¹ll take on will depend on how successful we are at some of our demonstrations.² On a major issue -- keeping the four-aircraft ³packs² and other planes, manned and unmanned from crashing into one another -- Leahy likened the strategy to current ones. ³That¹s done by how we do different tasking and assign airspaces and other pieces of that. The other platforms in the battle will know where each other is from the Link 16 and other links.² While acknowledging that the aircraft interoperability issue ³has to be dealt with,² he called it ³a solvable challenge using the technologies we have available.² That included advanced software, Leahy pointed out. Leahy, on a related question from UPI, also addressed communications links among different aircraft like the unmanned Predator or manned jet fighters now in the fleet. ³We really haven¹t,² he said, ³looked at direct links into any particular platform, other than we do tend to operate on Link 16, which gives up us the capability to link to other fighter platforms and anything else on that network.² He added UCAV operators ³intend to grab ... targeting information from best available sources.... Predator may or not enter that picture.² Asked if the X-45 would become the Air Force's fighter of choice, Leahy said, ³What this program is trying to do is to get the data needed to answer those kinds of questions. Our role is to go out and explore the space, and find out how transformational and revolutionary we can be.² But he cautioned, ³We¹re not at all looking here at what the ultimate objectives may be or where it could go in the future.² Meantime, Boeing UCAV Manager Rich Alldredge, who witnessed the demonstration flight on and above above Edwards' lake bed, said, ³The aircraft from liftoff was very, very stable in all regards. The whole flight path went just as we had expected, as we had seen in our simulations. We ... limited the bank angle to ... 20 degrees, and it performed just as expected. It rolled up nicely into the banks. All the climb profiles ... were extremely nominal as we came in and did our calibrated air speed checks, the system was within a few units (in altitude and air speed) of our expectations.² He also praised the taxi speed tests, approach and landing, adding, ³I just couldn't say that we saw anything on this flight that would indicate anything other than exactly as we had expected.² Leahy jocularly equated the flight to ³one lap around the Indy 500 ... racetrack.² At the same time, the officials stressed the flight was not intended to ²press the performance envelope² or show anything like the plane¹s maximum capabilities.

In terms of its ³audio signature, ³ Alldredge said, ³it is a jet-powered aircraft; as such it sounds like a fighter when it takes off.² The aircraft stayed aloft for 14 minutes and reached a speed of 195 knots. The X-45 is the first pilotless craft meant strictly for combat. Several Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) like the Predator are essentially reconnaissance ³platforms² or drones, although a few have been outfitted with limited offensive capability. One such dropped a 1,000-pound JDAM bomb in action during the U.S.-led operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, and Predator, for one, can carry Hellfire missiles. The demonstration aircraft is expected to fly every two or three weeks through the summer, with the next flight planned for next month, the officials said.

Tests of multiple vehicles will begin next summer, Alldredge said. Weapons delivery tests will commence in 2003-04. Live-fire exercises are planned for the following year.

The later X-45B variant, which should be ready in 2007-08, should be quite close to the version readied for fielding, the officials said, and involve mission control systems and containers and the support equipment that goes with that.

Ther Later B model will be a larger version of the X-45A and will be a "fieldable prototype," according to a Boeing spokesman. FY2006 will see an exercise with UCAVs and manned aircraft operating together.

Asked if the UCAVs would will cut into the Joint Strike Fighter program and the fact that the services are reportedly planning to cut airplane purchases, Leahy said it would not. ³UCAV is not designed to be a direct replacement for anything that we have in our current inventory.² He said it would complement planes like the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-22 and other near-horizon warplanes, not make them obsolete. The Air Force X-45A has two payload bays, but for now one is empty, while the other had an avionics package. The B variant will be configured differently in this and other respects, officials said. Leahy and Alldredge said the X-45A and its later variants should be about one-third the cost of the U.S., another next-generation weapons systems but one that has been mired in controversy.

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