The question to me is why? UAV's even A-10 UAVs are not really viable for the rough and ready roll of a mud mover. I fail to see, with the current technology, say for the next ten years, how a televison pilot will beat a manned aircraft in this mission.
I have flown ground atttack missions in my PC flight sim, and though I have a wide screen viewer, it is more often than not the mission goes really bad. (I get shot down. I never find the target, etc., etc.), of course this is not a multimillion dollar RQ-4 pilot station, but It comes to a point where situational awareness is lacking.
Can you fly a taxi stand pattern with 5 Drones, like you can with 5 A-10s? Can you operate a fly-by-wire aircraft in what is turning out to be a very electronic adverse environment. Even a minor EMP caused failure would down a Drone, where a manned A-10 would probably survive.
As I've said before, UAV has its place but that doesn't mean wasting money to put it, or even try it, in every place.
"When you take the risk of life out of war, it becomes too easy to use, too easy for leaders to forget it is the ultimate last resort, and if you use war you have failed."
I forget who said that quote, but whoever it was was correct.
Think About It
It feels to me that as the optionally-piloted avenue is all the rage for military helos just now that there must be plenty of research budget out there to explore this kind of work in the manned arena also.
I agree with you that perhaps unmanned CAS is a step too far - at least for a good few years yet. There have been too many instances of fratricide involving manned A-10s (usually not a reflection of the pilots, but of the very difficult mission that they are required to undertake) for it to be comfortable to take the flyer out of the cockpit, regardless of the SA improvements brought through the A-10C upgrade.
The main reason I could see a drone step into the CAS role is due to the Air Force plan to replace the A-10 with F-35. If you ever watch footage from Afghanistan where A-10s are supporting troops on a mountain side shooting off Zuni rockets as a cheap way to take out Taliban you immediately see the shortcomings of F-35. The platform would need to use guided standoff munitions to be of any use in that tight space. Not only would F-35 waste money on munitions, it will not have time on station. I look at the real miss in planning as trying to combine an f-18/f-16 type role with A-10/AV-8B. If the Marines could have decided to maintain their split between F-18 and AV-8B aircraft , the F-35 would only need the A/C models. This will likely end up being the case with the tightened budget. The STOVL replacement could have remained subsonic and been designed to be more survivable, stepping into the A-10's shoes. Now I see drones evolving to fill this role to save money and bridge the gap. If you take the endurance of a reaper drone, add countermeasures and maybe even LO, then add the DAS technology of F-35 you would have a winner. I don't really think STOVL would be int he cards but it might prove a path to sustainability/affordability.
The problem with Close Air Support (CAS), is three fold, (actually more but I will stick with three) Loiter, Load and turn around time.
Loiter: All famous CAS aircraft (IL-2, F4U, A-1, AH-1, A-10, AV-8, Su-25, Mil-24), had legs, they could hang over the battlefield at low level for an extended time period. They could wait for the call to help. This is the strong point of the RQ-4 it can loiter and loiter, but that loiter seems to be at 5000 meters or higher. These drones are in essence robo-snipers, and this is good, you need these, but they are not CAS. They can not come in low and fast drop ordinance then do a racing turn (have you ever seen an A-10 turn?) and come back on a straing run. Drone are currently too flimsey the are built like sailplanes.
Load: All the CAS craft mentioned above could carry a heavy load, thus with Loiter allow them to sometimes hit two targets at a time. The A-1 was famous for this. The Drone would have to have this capability, thus be a large, aircraft. Even with the Small diameter bomds the load carrying ability on all these aircraft (Above) must be met to be an effective CAS aircraft.
Turn Around Time: All the above aircraft could be landed a short distance behind the Front, the Marines and army are famous for this requirement. This offsets the load carrying requirement somewhat, but you will notice that the above aircraft keep to a rough field (roads, grass/dirt strips, beaches) capabilities as well as Load. This cycle of load, loiter, attack, reload, was made famous by the Russians In WW2 With one squadron loading one in route and one attacking, with precision timing. because their version of the FARRP (Forwad Refuel and Rearm Point was always with in 30 km or so , of the front.
The Drone of today can not do this, it is either too small or too specialised, I for one have not seen a Combat Drone, wieh ten 1500 Lb stations, or one that con perform a 3 G turn with such a load. If there is one in the works all the better, but I cannot see it as a good replacement for the current inventory.
Besides that I think I would like to know the Eyes in that CAS plane are in the seat and not sipping coffee in Nevada, or London, while my butt is o0n the line.
Think about it,