Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The future of air combat vehicles

Defense Tech.org has an article up about the the Navy taking delivery of two of Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned aerial combat drones to assess their capability for making carrier-style landings and take offs.

Image via Defensetech.org.

The X-47B represents a line of fighter evolution that we should have been pursuing this past decade instead of dumping billions into the badly overpriced Raptor and F-35 Lightning programs. However, rather than look at aircraft designed to counter a specific threat or drones capable of outmaneuvering and out-loitering any manned vehicle, the Air Force went on a frenzied, capability-driven spending spree seemingly set up to produce a gold-plate combat vehicle.

All of which helped to drive an out-of-control price-spiral that killed the Raptor well before its production run was complete and may still tank the Lightning. The icing on the cake is that these aircraft could also be obsolete in less than a decade faced rapidly increasing capabilities of drones.

Are drones capable of going head to head against manned planes in air combat at this time? No. But their capability to maneuver and identify and engage targets has been advancing at Moore's-Law rate in recent years. The DARPA Grand Challenge provides an instructive example of this  rate of increase. In 2004 none of the competing, land-based vehicles succeeded in navigating the dessert course and completing the race. In 2005 nearly all of the entrants surpassed the old course's requirements, and since 2007 subsequent non-DARPA unmanned vehicle races have seen new generation of vehicles mastering far more difficult courses in increasingly complex environments.

Not that I think humans will be out of the air-to-air business completely in the foreseeable future. One thing that has had me concerned for sometime is that the US' unchallenged dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum cannot last forever. At some point, and likely not all that far off, someone will be able to contest control and interfere with communications between land based operators and unmanned aircraft. So air-to-air UCAVs will have to possess a capacity for autonomous air-combat maneuvering, and it will be a good idea to have a manned, high-performance platform capable of following the drones into the battlespace to exercise direct human command and control via line-of-sight communications.

But first, we need drones, or at least to maintain a fleet of manned aircraft. With a gaping Raptor-sized hole blown open in its future inventory and its current fleet rapidly aging, I'm very surprised that the Air Force hasn't started its own UCAV program.  Or at least begun purchasing reasonably priced, improved versions of proven platforms like Boeing's stealthy F-15SE Silent Eagle to fill in the near-term shortfall of manned fighters as many already stressed, high-performance air frames move into their third decade of service.


Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle, Boeing Press Release Kit via Wikipedia

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