4. Unmanned military airplanes will continue to evolve.

Do names such as “Global Hawk”, “Predator”, and “Prowler” mean anything to you?

More than likely you’ve heard those names associated with the “War on Terror” or our ongoing military missions around the world. You are probably familiar with the fact that these are UAV’s or Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles

Let’s look at a few of them a bit:

ImageA. Global Hawk
Global Hawk is big. 116 feet from wingtip to wingtip, and 44 feet long; 8490 pounds empty and 22,900 pounds fully loaded; flies 400 miles per hour; and has a flight ceiling of 65,000 feet.

Global Hawk is powerful. With the ability to create a virtual battlefield, this plane is changing the way the US wages war. TheUAV.com website says, “During OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom), the Air Force also developed a full “reachback” capability for the Global Hawk, in which the UAV and its sensors were operated remotely from Beale Air Force Base, California, reducing Global Hawk’s logistical footprint in the field by more than 50 percent. Global Hawk crews used Internet-style chat rooms to stay in touch, literally forming “a worldwide virtual crew.” These chat rooms provided effective command and control over a weapon system that was spread across the globe. – Italics mine.

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B. Predator
The main workhorse in the UAV arsenal, this machine has a payload capacity of over 400 pounds, 24 hours of on-station time, can fly to 25,000 feet, and has the ability to provide that reconnaissance in any weather and either day or night

A second thing that makes this plane impressive is the fact that it can carry ordinance and can be either remotely operated or fully autonomous. This is a powerful weapon as well, but it’s still 49 feet wide and 27 feet long. There is still a hole.

The hole that needs to be filled is that of something which can be quickly and easily placed in the field – anywhere:

C. ER/MPUAS (Extended Range/Multi-purpose – Unmanned Aircraft System)
“MQ-1C Gray Eagle”

The C-130 transportable unmanned weapon that allows the military to have an intelligence asset in an area at the ‘drop of a hat’, this machine is unique.

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D. X-47A
With the amazing advances going on in this area, the way that unmanned flight is impacting data gathering and battlefield reconnaissance, what comes next?

The site theuav.com gives this explanation of the X-47A, “Northrop Grumman designed and built the X-47A with its own funds to demonstrate low-cost, rapid prototyping; robust unmanned vehicle management; and tailless aerodynamic qualities suitable for autonomous launch and recovery flight operations from an aircraft carrier. Lessons learned from the development and testing of X-47A will be used in support of the company’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System UCAS program. Built largely with composite materials and powered by a Pratt & Whitney JT15D-5C engine providing 3,200 pounds of thrust, X-47A measures 27.9 feet long with a nearly equal wingspan of 27.8 feet. The X-47A incorporates advanced autonomous flight control laws to account for directional control of its tailless design. The X-47A was designed in El Segundo at the Western Region business area of Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems. The vehicle was built at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.”

This is the most fascinating one for me, and the inspiration behind the squadron of attack UAV’s in the book. The logic behind it, “If we remove the pilot from the plane, couldn’t that plane perform some pretty amazing aerial combat maneuvers?”

The debate over taking the pilot out of the plane has gone on for years, and I think it makes sense that we need a fighter PILOT in a fighter PLANE. But what about extremely high risk missions, or if we could put the pilot in the plane visually but not physically? It seems to me that we are only a few years away from planes that are flown from a console in a safe area while the planes themselves do battle in places where their human pilots could never go.

So, that’s my idea. I’d love to hear from you men and women who are in positions to actually talk about these issues with authority. Would you give me your opinions – or read a book that explores this dynamic?

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One thought on “4. Unmanned military airplanes will continue to evolve.

  1. CD,

    Let’s talk about drones for a minute. I have about five minutes flying a drone. In 2003, my crew delivered supplies to an undisclosed location in a country that I cannot mention. We spent the majority of the afternoon at the airport, hanging out with the guys who lived there.

    They invited us the opportunity to fly the predator. I went into the trailer and sat at the controller while the technician showed me how to do everything. To be honest, after a minute I was bored to tears. I continued to pretend to be interested for a while longer before dismissing myself. Take my opinions as someone who is strongly in favor of piloted aircraft.

    The drone operator is there to only push a button and shoot a missile. Yes, they can take over for the drone and maneuver it around just like I can disconnect the autopilot in the airplane. The airplane I fly can land itself, just like a drone can land itself. The human is there to taxi and take-off. The problem is that with a drone, only so much automation will fit within the computer chip. And as we all know, computers sometimes have issues. There are fewer issues with the human brain which is still by far the most advanced computer on the airplane.

    Also, in order for the drone to be combat effective. Meaning able to self-identify targets and launch missiles autonomously. Because of the fluid environment of the modern battlefield, that computer must be connected to a ground based unit via a satellite uplink. If I am a country that has inferior numbers of drones, my goal would be to disable that uplink. The least effective method is to shoot down the drone. The next least effective method is to jam the signal. The most effective method to stop the drones is to destroy the ground based control station, but that is hard to attack a target on the other side of the planet. The best method for disabling the uplink is to destroy the satellites.

    You might say how do you know which one controls the drone? I have no answer for that so the enemy would be best served to destroy all of the satellites. Once the superior country losses its command and control ability, both sides are on even ground fighting a WWII type war, with piloted aircraft. Commanders and politicians who advocate removing pilots are giving a smart enemy a strategic advantage.

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