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US throws $1bn at unmanned attack aircraft

DARPA funding for Northrop Grumman's X-47B

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded Northrop Grumman a healthy $1.03bn to develop its X-47B unmanned combat aircraft.

The project forms part of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) demonstration program - in which Boeing is also strutting its stuff with the X-45C. J-UCAS is a "joint DARPA/Air Force/Navy effort to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value for a networked system of high performance, weaponized unmanned air vehicles to effectively and affordably prosecute 21st century combat missions, including Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), surveillance, and precision strike within the emerging global command and control architecture".

The X-47B is further evidence of the US military's current enthusiasm for unmanned aircraft, and the DARPA blurb outlines the philosophy behind the concept:

The J-UCAS vision is to develop a weapon system that expands tactical mission options and provides revolutionary new air power and penetrating surveillance capability. The J-UCAS weapon system will exploit the design and operational flexibility of an uninhabited vehicle to enable a new paradigm in warfighting while maintaining the judgment and moral imperative of the human operator. The J-UCAS is designed for minimal maintenance to reduce cost. It will be capable of dynamic mission replanning with varying levels of autonomy. The J-UCAS has the potential to fully exploit the emerging information revolution and provide advanced airpower with increased tactical deterrence at a fraction of the total life cycle costs of current manned systems.

The J-UCAS weapon system will enable a new affordability paradigm by reducing both acquisition, and operation and support (O&S) costs. Removing the pilot from the vehicle eliminates man-rating requirements, pilot systems, and interfaces. New design philosophies can be used to optimize the design for aerodynamics, signature, reduced maintenance and low cost manufacturing processes. Advances in small smart munitions will allow these smaller vehicles to attack multiple targets during a single mission and reduce the cost per target killed, while minimizing the prospects for geolocation errors and fratricide. Improvements in sensor technologies also allow significant advances in surveillance and reconnaissance over high threat areas. The J-UCAS will be highly effective with a significant reduction in life cycle costs over current systems.

While it looks like the Strategy Boutiques have been having a field day over there at the DARPA press release department, the idea is pretty simple: unmanned kit costs less, is expendible and you don't have to explain later to some sky jockey's relatives how his F-18 came to be downed by a Patriot battery. Or that's the idea.

In reality - and although it looks on paper as if all of the technology to allow the J-UCAS "vision" to "enable a new affordability paradigm" by reducing the "cost per target killed" is available off-the-shelf - US unmanned aircraft projects have to date proved expensive and troublesome. Northrop Grumman is also behind the hi-tech Global Hawk "high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial reconnaissance system". Of seven prototypes, four had crashed by early 2003, although in every case this was attributed to operator error or inadequate maintenence - proof that taking the pilot out of the loop doesn't prevent cock-ups when the "judgment... of the human operator" is found wanting.

And the J-UCAS program is a big step forward from the Global Hawk in terms of operational ambitions, as DARPA notes: "The system’s objectives include an air vehicle combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles with a weapons payload of 4,500 pounds, electronic warning system and an integrated synthetic aperture radar. The vehicles are designed to survive in a high threat environment and feature beyond-line-of-sight network connectivity for global operations."

While the Global Hawk boasts an operation range of 13,500 nautical mile range and 36-hour endurance during which it can comfortably "conduct surveillance over an area the size of Illinois" controlled either by line-of-site or satellite-connected operators, it is not expected to deliver 4,500 pounds of ordnance down Osama bin Laden's chimney without hitting the orphanage next door while controlled by a very human operator in an air-conditioned trailer thousands of miles away. It remains to be seen whether DARPA's substantial investment in the X-47B really does provide "revolutionary new air power" or an expensive flying turkey. ®

Related links

Northrop Grumman X-47B press release (PDF)
DARPA X-47B press release (PDF)
Global Hawk
Boeing X-45

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