Unmanned Bomber Prepares for Crucial Tests
An influx of new funds and growing confidence in the technology are providing much needed momentum to the Air Force Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. Program officials said that, at the current pace, the aircraft could be ready to join the fleet before the end of the decade.
The UCAV, built by the Boeing Corp. in Seal Beach, Calif., passed medium-speed taxi tests earlier this year at Edwards Air Force base. High-speed taxi tests were scheduled to begin last month and flight tests could take place as early as the end of May.
With the high-speed taxi, “We are going to be able to prove that we have command and control of the vehicle [moving at] up to 140 knots on the ground,” Col. Michael Leahy, the UCAV program director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told National Defense. “The data that we get on those tests say that we have sufficient confidence, regarding the navigation and control algorithm to proceed to the first flight.”
Once the first flight is completed, a series of system checkup flights is planned. “That is going to take us into the late summer time, when we progressively expand the envelope,” he explained. Unlike current drones, such as the Predator, the UCAV operates autonomously. It has to take off, land and taxi without any human operator directing it.
The UCAV is “not one of those toy vehicles,” said a Boeing official close to the program, who did not want to be quoted by name. The aircraft is meant to go into combat during the “toughest first three days of the war,” to try destroying enemy air defenses and feeding targeting information to other manned aircraft in the area.
The aircraft that is now being tested, has gone through several design changes since the first UCAV concept was designed in the late-1990s. The Air Force and DARPA are in charge of the program.
The first prototype, the X-45A, is representative of the requirements set in 1998, which have since changed.
George Muellner, president of Boeing’s Phantom Works, explained that, after assessing the X-45A vehicle, the Air Force decided that it wanted a slightly larger payload and different maneuver tactics. The result is the current X-45B model. “It [the vehicle] increased slightly, but I don’t think it is going to be dramatic,” he said. The basic systems are going to be the same, he emphasized.
The overall length of the vehicle increased by 14 percent, and the wing area grew by 63 percent. The larger wing area offers a wider angle-of-attack range and increases the gust margins, noted Leahy. The UCAV has a 19,000/10,000 pound gross/empty weight respectively, a 500-1,000 nautical miles mission radius and up to a 3,000-pound weapons payload.
The X-45B is a “fieldable” prototype, said Leahy. That could happen in the 2006-2007 time frame. The program has been funded to produce 14 X-45B vehicles by 2008.
Until late last year, the program was not funded past 2003, and it had no money to complete the X-45B development, according to Leahy. “We did receive additional funding that allowed us to fully fund the demonstration program and the development building, the in-flight testing of the X-45 B, and additional funding to develop and procure the 14 Block-10 vehicles,” Leahy explained.
In fiscal year 2003, the program received $91 million. The cash infusion “accelerated the program,” said Leahy. “We are going as fast as is technically possible to put the system in the field. ... We can’t go any faster than we are currently attempting.”
The UCAV is envisioned as a “spiral development” program, Muellner noted. That means the first vehicle will be fielded with its basic capabilities, but subsequent UCAVs will feature various high-tech upgrades.
The Block 10 UCAV, scheduled for 2008, is going to be designed for preemptive attack of enemy air-defense systems and will have strike capabilities, said Muellner. Block 20 will then give the vehicle a reactive capability, “when it will be able to operate in an area, self-identify the threat systems and attack them,” Muellner said. “A human in the loop, in this case, gives it the consent to deliver the weapons.”
Approximately 16 Block 20 vehicles could be fielded in the 2010-2011 time frame, said Leahy. The Block 30 will add directed-energy weapons.
Initially, the UCAV will be able to carry six small-diameter bombs, a 500-pound or a 1,000-pound JDAM (joint direct attack munitions) on each side of the aircraft.
The basic design of the system is such that it can have multiple operators overseeing a group of vehicles. The control station is “slightly bigger than a PC,” said Muellner. It can be installed on large airplanes, such as AWACS or Joint STARS.
The UCAVs potentially could fight in packs of three or four, said Leahy. They should be able to get to a certain point, engage the target and coordinate with the other vehicles in the pack to decide which has the best sensor, which one can take images or which one can fire its weapons.
In this regard, the UCAV represents a drastic departure from the current technology seen in unmanned drones such as the Predator or the Global Hawk, according to Leahy.
“The Global Hawk pretty much has an operator that is watching over its flight and is flying a mission plan that was set for it,” Leahy explained. “The UCAVs have on board the ability to dynamically re-plan their route and do cooperative targeting with each other.”
The difference between a Predator equipped with Hellfire missiles and the UCAV is like that between “high-school and professional basketball players.” While the Predator is flown by remote control, the UCAV has on-board intelligence. “I don’t mean to take anything away from the Predator, but it is not designed to do the missions that we want to do.”
In parallel, Boeing, DARPA and the Air Force are working on a training plan. The operators will train with exactly the same system they would be using in actual combat, either from a ground station or an air station. “Given the simulations we put in this thing, the operator would not really know whether the vehicle was actually airborne or not,” said Muellner. “The simulation coming back to the operator would be the same sort of imagery from the radar and other sensor information that he would get from a vehicle. Training in real world operations would be almost identical.”
Leahy described the training approach as a “complete day in the life of a UCAV.” The training community is looking at every aspect of the operations—from when the UCAV is taken “out of a box” to the time it actually flies a mission and comes back, he said.
It is still not clear how much these vehicles will cost. Originally, the plan was to limit the price to one-third of the cost of a Joint Strike Fighter. That would have priced the UCAV at about $10 million a piece. But Leahy declined to commit to any numbers yet. “The biggest thing we have to do is to redo our cost estimates,” as the program goes through development, said Leahy. “We still believe that we can be very affordable, but the affordability levels are more of a question of where in the spirals we are taking that snap shot.”