Unmanned combat air-vehicles (UCAVs) could be operational in defence-suppression and deep-strike roles within 12 years, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) believes.

The presence of such UCAVs by around 2009-10 could also lead to a cut in the required number of next-generation strike fighters, because of the increased effectiveness and reduced attrition resulting from joint use of manned and unmanned combat aircraft, DARPA says.

DARPA and the US Air Force plan to demonstrate a strike UCAV in 2001-2 (Flight International, 15-21 October, P5). David Whelan, director of DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, is looking for a $7 million air vehicle, with a 3,200-4,500kg empty weight, able to carry "about a dozen" 45kg-class small, smart bombs.

The UCAV would be used to penetrate enemy air defences and remain over the target area for extended periods, he explains.

Whelan foresees the strike UCAV being a subsonic vehicle, powered by a small commercial turbofan providing a "persistence" of over 10h. Several vehicles would allow a continuous presence over the target area, he says.

The technology demonstration will evaluate different operating modes. The UCAV could be flown alongside a fighter at distances of between 100m (300ft) and 35km (20nm) and controlled from the manned aircraft using short communications links. In this mode, UCAVs would multiply the effectiveness of strike aircraft, Whelan says. "The backseater would control the UCAVs and the team would penetrate-attack many targets before exiting," he explains.

The UCAV could also be controlled by surveillance aircraft up to 200km distant, with five to ten operators each handling one to three air vehicles, Whelan says. A third possibility is to control the UCAVs from over the horizon, using satellite communications.

Whelan says that air-vehicle costs would be kept down by using offboard sensors, which allow the onboard avionics to be simpler. DARPA is working on low-cost global-positioning systems (GPS) and inertial-reference sensors, he says. "We need reasonable guidance accuracy only. Offboard sensors are precise enough to target GPS-guided weapons," he adds.

DARPA and the USAF are negotiating an agreement to find the funds for the $125 million strike-UCAV demonstration, starting later this year. The US Navy is not expected to participate because of concerns about carrier-based operation of UCAVs.

Whelan says that the demonstration will replace USAF plans to fly a fighter demonstrator under the Future Aircraft Technology Enhancement programme.

Whelan cautions that "it is not one step to UCAVs in the field by 2004". He anticipates follow-on demonstration and development phases, and believes that a service-entry date of 2009-10 is a "reasonable estimate, given Air Force support".

Source: Flight International