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US Navy ponders robot carrier planes

Maverick and Goose for the breadline

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The killer-robot takeover in the American military continues to gather pace with news over the weekend that the US Navy has received concrete proposals for unmanned carrier planes.

This story isn't an April Fool; the billion-dollar Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) competition has been brewing for some time. But the bids are now in.

According to the budget justification, "the Navy UCAS-D is comprised of a low-observable planform air vehicle". It will "be designed for autonomous launch and recovery as well as operations in the Carrier Control Area".

At this stage, the USN merely wants to see if flying robots can cut it in the world of carrier operations, generally considered a very severe test for human pilots. It's already been proven that killer droids can drop missiles and bombs perfectly well, but can they do deck landings?

According to Aviation Week and Space Technology, "some officers in the Navy still remain skeptical about operating unmanned vehicles in the challenging carrier environment".

Nonetheless, the US military-industrial complex seems quietly confident. A Northrop Grumman/Lockheed alliance reportedly intends to offer a modified version of their earlier X-47, and Boeing – the other major American defence player – intends to redesign its X-45C. Both these aircraft are substantial pieces of kit: the X-47 weighs almost 20 tonnes and has a 60-foot wingspan. If the problem of autonomous deck landing can be cracked, the robot jets may be able to do a lot more than the Navy is actually asking for at the moment – perhaps moving on to fly combat missions much sooner than anticipated, as happened with the land-based Predator series.

The X-47 demonstrator in particular will be able to carry 3,000lb of ordnance straight away and fly for seven hours without refuelling. It will be able to refuel from tanker aircraft in mid-air, too, raising the possibility of very long flights indeed – limited only by requirements for maintenance inspections.

The Boeing contender seems to be less well defined – the single X-45C prototype has not yet flown. However, the earlier X-45A has carried out "64 mishap-free, unmanned combat flights", according to Boeing.

And the Lockheed/Northrop coalition has had its problems in the past. Lockheed's "Polecat" demo droid, unveiled at last year's Farnborough air show, reportedly pranged itself last December after only three flights.

But overall, robot combat aircraft would seem to be a matter not of if, but when – even for carrier operations. The technology has been within reach for some time: it's merely a question of willingness by the military to commit to it. With the various air forces and branches typically run by former pilots, this willingness has been slow in coming.

Indeed, some senior pilots still seem to assume that there will always be aircrew, even in cases where you really wouldn't want them. The Evening Standard reports that air vice marshal David Walker, commander of the RAF's fast-jet fleet, has discussed scenarios where his people might need to sacrifice their lives to get the job done. He speculated that they might have to crash their planes onto a car holding a vital al-Qaeda commander, or into a terrorist-controlled aircraft being flown towards a British city – perhaps after running out of ammo or suffering a weapons malfunction.

An RAF spokesman later told the Standard: "These are decisions which, however unlikely and dreadful, service people may have to make, and it is one of the many reasons why the British people hold them in such high esteem."

One would hope that at least in the case of the threatened British city the pilots of the RAF would know what to do – though modern ejection seats would seem to offer at least some chance of survival even then.

And in fact, to some degree the air vice marshal is already living in the past. RAF pilots handling Predator aircraft in combat over Iraq and Afghanistan are sometimes not in the theatre of war at all, but in a comfortable base just outside Vegas. No very great degree of courage would be required to crash one's Predator drone onto an al-Qaeda chief's car in this situation: no medal would really be in order. Nor, ultimately, would flying pay.

And it could be that this kind of serviceman at least – one who operates killer robots for a living – might forfeit some of the high esteem traditionally accorded to those who risk their lives for their country. Not to mention some of the glamour of the old-school fighter pilot.

Could it be that the Top Guns of today are the last of a dying breed? ®

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