Senior US Government official believes Joint Strike Fighter could end era as future passes to unmanned craft

The Secretary of the US Navy believes the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) may be the last US tactical combat aircraft ever designed because of the emergence of unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) technology.

In a keynote address to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) last week, Gordon England, the navy's senior civilian official and a defence industry veteran, said: "We could now be designing, and I believe quite likely that we are designing, our last manned combat airplane...It is my judgement that it is time to start planning for a full spectrum of unmanned systems, particularly for our naval services."

England, a former senior combat aircraft executive with Lockheed Martin, shares US President Bush's view that the Department of Defense must draw on revolutionary advances in technology. "Unmanned systems meet that criteria. They are transformational technology," he said.

He believes using unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) only for "dull, dirty and dangerous" missions is "limiting what the ultimate application should be for unmanned systems. We tend to think about using unmanned systems to augment manned platforms. We need to reverse our thinking. We should instead think about unmanned systems that are augmented by manned systems."

England said many of today's weapons are designed to detect and engage targets beyond visual range. "It certainly appears realistic for unmanned systems to soon accomplish these same missions without the cumbersome and expensive life support system and survivability features associated with manned systems." He said future naval warships should no longer provide "hotel functions".

The US Navy is already a leader in developing UCAV applications. Northrop Grumman recently rolled out its X-47 UCAV-N demonstrator and the company is competing against Boeing for future naval work being funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Source: Flight International