Despite recent successful flight tests, the Air Force unmanned combat aircraft,
called the UCAV, remains in the “adolescent phase” of its development,
said Stan Kasprzyk, program manager for the UCAV at the Boeing Co.
Boeing is under contract to develop the X-45 UCAV for the U.S. Air Force. The
unmanned bomber is designed to launch 800-, 1,000-, and 2,000-pound joint direct
attack munitions (JDAM) and small diameter bombs. It also could, one day, deploy
directed energy weapons and conduct electronic jamming missions.
Two X-45A prototypes are being flight-tested. A larger version, the X-45C,
is in development and could fly by 2006, according to Boeing.
These vehicles are only “dust covers” for weapons and avionics
systems, Kasprzyk told a conference of the Precision Strike Association.
Compared to UAVs such as the Predator, the UCAVs mark a drastic departure in
the way they are operated. The UCAV has no stick or rudders. The control of
the vehicle is programmed on the ground.
“It’s a major paradigm shift in the operator community, moving
from piloting to mission operator,” said Kasprzyk.
He characterizes the current state of the UCAV technology as being in the “adolescent
phase,” because platforms have been unreliable, limited to short duration
missions, vulnerable to enemy fire, weather and other restrictions.
More advances are needed in on-board data processing, said Kasprzyk . “The
goal is to do data fusion and automatic target recognition on board.”
One significant cultural issue for the operators is the “situational
awareness,” he explained. The question is whether only the pilot can have
situational awareness or whether the vehicle also can attain some level of awareness,
“if you have enough computing power.”
Sensor inputs, he noted, should contribute to how well the vehicle can accomplish
the mission. If a “pop up threat” emerges, the vehicle should be
able to route itself around that.
As far as autonomy goes, the X-45 rates quite low, Kasprzyk said. On a scale
from zero to 10, the UCAV is “heading toward an autonomy level of 1 to
That is a concern for the industry, he said. “We have a capability to
go to 4-5 right now, but there is a little bit of operator resistance, because
they haven’t been prepared for that shift yet.”
The right level of automony will be dictated by the concept of operations for
the UCAV, Kasprzyk said. “We are working on getting operators in the loop
as we do concept development, as they analyze the conops.”
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency predicts that the UCAV will reach
a level of 8-9, which would practically give them enough autonomy to carry out
a complex mission with no human in the loop.
The aircraft price tag also could become a problem in developing the concept
of operations. At an estimated cost of $10 million to $15 million each, the
UCAV may become such a valued asset that commanders may be reluctant to send
it on high-risk missions and may even end up assigning manned escorts to protect
“That is definitely a consideration,” Kasprzyk said. “The
system capabilities will be designed so that you use the UCAV for the right
mission.” It will not compete with manned aircraft, he added.
The UCAV, meanwhile, now has a new name. In recent months, the Defense Department
has directed the Air Force and the Navy to consolidate their unmanned combat
aircraft programs and renamed the new effort Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems,
The switch to J-UCAS also prompted a new nickname for the program. “We
call J-UCAS ‘jackass,’” said one senior Navy official in charge
of aviation programs.