Boeing's roll out of the X-45 unmanned combat air-vehicle (UCAV) ushers in a new era in military aviation, heralding the potential to conduct strike missions without the need to endanger a pilot.

UCAVs and their less aggressive unmanned air vehicle (UAV) cousins, such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk, are seen as the future for "dull and dirty" missions. UCAVs can perform dangerous "dirty" tasks such as destroying enemy air defences or low-level attacks against heavily defended targets.

Every week a new role seems to be defined for the Global Hawk on top of its basic surveillance and reconnaissance mission. It is already being considered as a supplement to the Lockheed Martin U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, with its long-range, high-altitude capability and ability to perform "dull" monotonous flight profiles.

The X-45's progress and development of the RQ-4A will be closely watched worldwide, but they will only become a mainstay of future air forces if key questions are answered - how much autonomy should UAVs and UCAVs be given and how will they interact with manned aircraft?

Trials of the X-45 will have to demonstrate that it is safe to operate UCAVs and determine whether such machines should operate autonomously - can the systems really tell the difference between a tank and a tractor, a Scud missile launcher and a school bus? A man-in-the-loop system requires the datalink between the UCAV and ground to be of high integrity and unjammable. Today's demand for no collateral damage means that there must be a high probability of the UCAV/UAV returning to base as an accidental loss could be as harmful as a bomb going astray.

Interaction with manned aircraft also needs addressing. High-flying UAVs such as the Global Hawk need to climb through civil airspace without obstructing airliners, and it is not practical to close airspace to allow the departure or return of a UAV.

A successful X-45 programme will beg another question: will there be any more need to develop manned platforms? An X-45-derived UCAV could enter service in 2010, the same timeframe as the Joint Strike Fighter. Even before the conclusion of the X-45 tests, it seems likely that air forces will mix and match manned and unmanned vehicles. This will, however, mean fewer manned aircraft are needed.

If the X-45 delivers what it promises, the future for manned military aircraft could be limited. But it is essential that the operational use of UAVs and UCAVs does not diminish the need for advances in bombing accuracy and the resulting military efficiency.

Source: Flight International