Unmanned combat aircraft need to overcome significant technical
and operational hurdles before they can even be considered suitable
for operations aboard Navy flattops, said Rear Adm. John Chenevey,
program executive officer for strike weapons and unmanned aviation.
The Navy currently is funding a research program for an unmanned
combat aircraft, called UCAV-N. It would be an F-16-size air vehicle
that lands and takes off from ships. The current UCAV-N is “a
stretch in technology,” said Chenevey during a conference
hosted by the Office of Naval Research. The UCAV, he added, “is
the future of tactical aviation, [but only] as an addition to manned
On a scale of zero to 10, the current technology would get a six,
Chenevey said. Another challenge is to figure out the concept of
operations: how the UCAV will be used, how it will fit in the air
wing, he said.
The more formidable obstacle that UCAVs will encounter is the culture
of Navy aviation.
The thought of having a 30,000-pound unmanned airplane landing
on 300 feet on a carrier flight deck is “a tough sell,”
said Chenevey. “We have a long way to go before technology
will help us demonstrate that we can land this thing 999 times out
of a thousand in a 3-foot box,” he said.
If the UCAV-N is developed successfully, its most valuable contribution
will be “persistent deep surveillance” that currently
is not achievable with manned radar aircraft.
“We need something that’s able to go out and hang over
the battlefield around the clock, keep everybody apprised of what
is going on day or night.”
Surveillance, rather than strike, will be the top priority mission
for the UCAV. The Navy has more than adequate assets to conduct
strike missions, having made a large investment in standoff weapons.
“What we need is the ability to target these weapons. That
is why we want to go to surveillance first,” said Chenevey.
Asked why the UCAV has to be as big as an F-16, he said that the
current propulsion technology could not support a 3,000 to 4,000
pound payload in a smaller vehicle. The UCAV, additionally, needs
to carry enough fuel for a 12-hour mission.
For unmanned aircraft to become useful in Navy carrier-based operations,
planners must decide “how to use them,” he said. Otherwise,
“why buy them?”