Instead of dismissing the vision of combat conducted without manned aircraft, countries must plan for UCAVs now

In 1957, Britain's defence minister Duncan Sandys published a White Paper that changed the face of the UK aircraft industry. At a stroke, he cancelled almost every manned combat aircraft development and decreed that guided missiles would meet the country's future air defence and strike needs. Sandys' decision ended Britain's hopes of catching up with the USA. Arguably it has taken until now, and the four-nation Eurofighter, for the UK to have a fighter to rival those produced in the USA.

At last week's annual convention of the unmanned systems community in Baltimore, Maryland, the US Navy's highest civilian official, an aerospace industry veteran, predicted that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) could be the USA's last manned combat aircraft. Navy secretary Gordon England - who oversaw production of today's most successful fighter, the F-16, as head of Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth plant - called on the military to plan now for a spectrum of unmanned systems.

England believes it is time to reverse conventional thinking, which assumes unmanned systems will augment manned platforms and perform only "dull, dirty and dangerous" missions, and to instead think about unmanned systems being augmented by manned platforms. Is the spectre of Sandys rising from the grave? Is the century-long air superiority of manned combat aircraft coming to an end?

It is hard to credit, looking at the chequered history of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), that they could be considered serious rivals to manned aircraft. But technology is maturing. From 1982, with Israel's strike on the Bekka Valley to conflicts in the Balkans, UAVs have proved their worth. Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk is a success, albeit in the benign role of high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance. Coming behind Global Hawk is a raft of unmanned systems, from flying sensors that allow soldiers to see round corners, to unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) able to go in harm's way with relative impunity.

The USA is leading the charge because of budget resources, technological capabilities and political imperatives. Casualties are no longer acceptable to a public led to believe in US forces' virtual invincibility. UAVs and UCAVs appeal to commanders because they offer the chance to achieve military goals with little risk of political fallout.

But England and other proponents risk overseeking the concept. The US military has spent billions on a successful tactical UAV - a relatively simple vehicle in the spectrum of unmanned systems - and has yet to field an acceptable solution. UCAVs have not reached even demonstration stage. Boeing plans to fly the USAF's X-45 UCAV technology demonstrator this year, and conduct a showcase strike mission, including weapon release, within 12 months. Demonstration of carrier-capable naval UCAVs follows a year behind.

No-one expects UCAVs to have an impact before 2010, when the JSF will enter service in numbers with the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and UK Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. But the defence planning horizon has become so extended that attention must be paid to unmanned systems now if they are to become reality in a decade or so.

No-one doubts JSF will be the USA's predominant combat aircraft programme for the next 20 years, but it is hard for many in the military and industry to believe it will be the last. England's remarks, however, cannot be ignored. In 10 years, when the services begin the planning cycle to upgrade or replace JSFs, UCAVs are likely to be a reality. The cost vs capability equation then becomes a balance between investing in the manned platform or an unmanned adjunct. As time progresses and robotic weaponry advances, the balance could shift towards using the few manned platforms to augment many unmanned systems.

England, as navy secretary, is keenly aware of the issues. The only way the USN can keep building aircraft carriers and equipping them with the full spectrum of weapon and sensor platforms is by using unmanned systems.

The USA's allies should pay heed. They already struggle to match the capability of US forces on coalition operations and the trend towards unmanned systems could widen the gap. Europe finally has competitive manned combat aircraft in the shape of Eurofighter, Dassault Rafale and Saab/BAE Systems Gripen. JSF, with its emphasis on affordability, is already a threat. Add UCAVs to the equation and the balance could shift irrevocably.

Claims for unmanned systems should be viewed cautiously but not ignored. UCAVs may be 10, even 20, years away, but are coming. Planning for their arrival must begin now.

Source: Flight International