UCAV gains apparent but debate rages on cost, uses

Farnborough Air Show » 2006
November 14, 2006, 9:20 AM

Having led the way with unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) concept demonstrations, the U.S. Air Force seems to be having second thoughts. Meanwhile, Europe is playing catch-up, but with three entirely separate UCAV demonstrators: the pan-European Neuron, the BAE Raven and the EADS Barracuda. Good technical progress is apparent, but debates about requirements, operational utility and cost are ongoing.

Mixed signals are coming from the Pentagon. “Ask ten air force generals what they want UCAVs to do, and you get ten different answers,” an official from the Joint unmanned combat air system (J-UCAS) program told Aviation International News late last year.

Two months later, J-UCAS was ended prematurely. But the U.S. Navy is still planning to explore carrier operations with UCAVs, although Northrop Grumman and Boeing will now have to compete for a contract. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has started a new next-generation long-range strike (NGLRS) investigation in which the emphasis is on large payloads, intercontinental range and speed of delivery, beyond the capability of the tactical UCAVs designed to date.

At the Farnborough show two years ago, full-scale models of the two J-UCAS designs were displayed, and it is clear just how big they are compared to the X-45A vehicles that Boeing is already flying. At last year’s Paris Air Show, the Neuron mockup matched the adjoining Rafale for size. And size has become a problem, according to some U.S. opinions.

The J-UCAS official described how the original “dull and dirty” missions envisioned for UCAVs–surveillance and the suppression of enemy air defenses had grown to that of a more versatile sensor/strike platform capable of loitering in “denied airspace” before engaging “emerging” targets. But that drove up the fuel, payload and stealth requirements, not to mention cost.

Does Unmanned Cost Less?

“At $60 million per vehicle, unmanned no longer looks cheaper,” the J-UCAS official noted. [That $60 million price sticker was disputed by a Northrop Grumman official, who said that a volume production UCAV similar to the company’s X-47B would cost “$25 million to $30 million” including sensors.–Ed.]

A second U.S. Air Force officer, from the NGLRS program, told AIN that as UCAVs get larger, their life-cycle costs are not necessarily lower than those for manned vehicles. “The sensor load increases the required datalink capacity, and the deeper the operating radius, the more robust the communications must be,” he argued. The officer also noted that having a pilot on board a strike platform “helps you to shorten the kill chain.”

The UCAV debate in the U.S. is complicated by the amount of work going on in “black” programs, which is thought to include a stealthy, long-endurance UAV dedicated to reconnaissance, and definitely includes electronic attack (for example, directed energy) payloads, which might be suitable only for large platforms. When the analysis of alternatives for the NGLRS program is completed later this year, the role of UCAVs in the future U.S. Air Force may become clearer–but only to those with the necessary security clearances. “Very few results will be unclassified,” the NGLRS official predicted.

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) made a contribution of $50 million to J-UCAS to stay informed of U.S. developments. At a private UK Royal Air Force briefing attended by AIN, a surprisingly upbeat view of UCAV prospects emerged. The MoD wants to make a decision in 2010; if it does so, a UCAV could be in service by 2018.

Possible requirements include an eight-hour endurance with a payload of 4,500 pounds, which could include a directed energy weapon. The briefing suggested that a UCAV squadron could be 75 percent cheaper to operate than a manned fighter squadron.

The MoD’s optimism is driven partly by significant progress by BAE Systems in UAV and UCAV development. Earlier this year, BAE finally unveiled five years of rapid prototyping that has included test flights in Australia of a small autonomous UCAV called Raven. First flown in late 2003, the Raven was adapted last year for high-altitude and long endurance flight as the Corax surveillance UAV with long-span wings. BAE has funded much of this work, but the MoD says it will commit to a “more substantial” technology demonstrator program this year.

Euro UCAV Takes to the Air

EADS was similarly secretive about UCAV developments until May, when it announced the first flight in Spain of the Barracuda. The three-year program was largely funded by EADS, which aimed to prove “that we are able to independently develop and test a demonstrator for future agile, autonomous and network-capable unmanned mission systems.” The company said it is now interested in partnering with other European entities.

But Germany–as well as the UK–declined an invitation to join the Neuron program, which is led by France and funded by the six participating countries. Three of the industrial partners in the Neuron–Alenia, Dassault and Saab–have flown their own small jet-powered research UAVs. The other partners are EADS (Spain), HAI (Greece) and Ruag (Switzerland). A single Neuron prototype will make about 100 flights, starting in late 2010. The entire budget for the program is only $490 million, of which France is paying half. For comparison, the U.S. planned to spend $4 billion on the J-UCAS.

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