Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA

The US Air Force's proposed unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) may see its first operational applications in surveillance and reconnaissance roles rather than strike missions, according to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics president, "Micky" Blackwell.

The shift in focus, Blackwell says, is likely to be driven by competing timeframes between the UCAV programme, the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter, as well as a widening requirement for better airborne imagery of battlefields.

But Blackwell, speaking in Canberra, Australia, on 11 May, also said that the operational deployment of UCAVs in strike roles "is going to be a reality. It is just a question of when."

Lockheed Martin pulled out of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency-led UCAV competition against Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Boeing after a divergence of views with the agency over the requirement. Boeing was selected at the end of March to develop and demonstrate by 2002 a system intended to perform suppression of enemy air defence missions.

Blackwell says analysis of UCAV concepts by Lockheed Martin continue to point to key questions of reliability and manpower requirements. "It turns out that it takes more pilots to fly UCAVs than it does to fly a manned aircraft.

"What happens if you get an aircraft up there with a load of bombs and you lose contact over a city? All of those things have got to be explored. Those are issues that we are going to have to develop solutions to," he says.

UCAV-based surveillance and reconnaissance missions would have close parallels to those of the cancelled Lockheed Martin DarkStar low-observable unmanned air vehicle. However, Blackwell says that it is unlikely that current UCAV concepts would provide a direct successor.

"We have been on record for the last several years as saying that we need something twice as big as the DarkStar to carry more than one payload at a time. So it gets to be about the size of Teledyne Ryan's Global Hawk.

"We believe that eventually the [US] Government is going to come around, to fly the Global Hawk, understand the flying characteristics of a big aircraft, take what we have done in terms of stealth development on DarkStar, and will combine that into a specification."

Meanwhile, operational demands on the USAF's Lockheed U-2 fleet could see the aircraft re-enter production, Blackwell says.

"For a while, it was looked at as a sunset system, but that is not the way it is being looked at now. In fact, it is bandied about that they may put it back into production. It is so over-taxed today that they really need a few more," he says.

Source: Flight International