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  • OPINION: In robot wars, manned and unmanned systems must merge

OPINION: In robot wars, manned and unmanned systems must merge

Whether it is through want or a forced hand, the US Army is integrating manned and unmanned aircraft together into the armed aerial scout role to replace what was formerly a helicopter-delivered capability.

Manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) is the future of this operational role, and the AAI RQ-7B Shadow and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1C Gray Eagle UAVs – alongside the Boeing AH-64E Apache – will replace the Bell Helicopter OH-58D Kiowa Warrior to perform the armed scout mission.

Financial restraints mean that the army will not be purchasing any new equipment – bar a short-range micro-UAV – so it has time to work on its manned-unmanned integration and bring in these sophisticated systems. This is especially important considering it did not envisage carrying out such operations for some time, but was forced into it due to reduced budgets.

The technologies have to be complementary of each other; however, for once, unmanned technology is lagging behind the manned. The RQ-7 will need a new engine – a project is under way to replace it – and maybe also a new payload, and increased speed, so as to keep up with the AH-64E.

The latest Apache, on the other hand, is an upgraded model that is not only able to receive UAV data feeds, but also can manipulate the unmanned platform’s sensor and change its flightplan.

While the army is potentially integrating MUM-T because it has the fleets and needs to make the most of what it has available, the US Navy is also pursuing MUM-T, albeit at a concept level.

Northrop Grumman’s X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator carried out an aviation first on 22 April when it was refuelled by a manned tanker, in what all parties involved touted as a sign of things to come. Last August the type also operated from the deck of an aircraft carrier alongside a Boeing F/A-18.

However, while these feats have been achieved, the X-47B is only a demonstrator – and one now due to be retired, as it has achieved all of its test parameters under current funding.

The most tangible outcome will be the USN’s unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike aircraft, which is expected to operate as part of a carrier strike group. However, this has been pushed back by three years to 2023. That does not bode well with the future image of UAVs operating alongside manned aircraft, and it will also rank the navy firmly behind the army in its implementation.

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