J-UCAS operations office plan could see future UAV fleets for armed forces being standardised for multiple operations

The US Department of Defense's new Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) operations office is studying adding homeland surveillance as well as traditional airborne reconnaissance as long-term missions for unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs).

The plans could lead to the standardising of most future US Air Force and US Navy unmanned air vehicle (UAV) fleets into a common UCAV design suitable for multiple operational roles, including surveillance and strike missions.

The J-UCAS operations office, formed in June, also says any widening of proposed roles for UCAVs may also have a direct impact on future UAV acquisition plans by other service arms, particularly the US Army.

Maj David Pohlen, chief of the operations branch in the J-UCAS office, says: "We can't forget the joint-ness of this...We have both air force and navy working on this, but we also have to take in seriously the army."

Speaking at the IQPC UCAV conference in London last month, Pohlen said: "The army is considering, at battalion level, having 212 UAVs of their own flying out there doing different missions. If we can do this smart, and do this right, maybe we can answer a lot of their needs [with J-UCAS], and they will need fewer and that will help deal with battlespace and [communications] and a lot of other issues."

The air force's concerns may already be having an effect. The army's vision for its extended-range/multipurpose UAV includes a strike role, but an industry source says the armed mission is being listed as an unexercised option because of the air force's rules-and-missions objections.

Wider roles being flagged by the J-UCAS operations office include chemical, biological and nuclear contaminant detection, identification and tracking, and communication and navigation relay.

UCAVs could take on reconnaissance and surveillance missions as sensor technology evolves, with potential payloads including foliage penetration radar and subsurface sensors.

The J-UCAS programme will conduct operational assessments of the Boeing X-45C and Northrop Grumman X-47B between 2007 and 2009, with the results used to guide acquisition of operational UCAV fleets for the USAF and USN from around 2012.

Separately, the UK remains the focus of an international participation strategy for the J-UCAS programme. Dr Michael Francis, J-UCAS programme director, says: "We have had discussions with the UK to try and understand in what sense we might be able to work with them. There are discussions in progress, but no agreement yet on what that might be. But [there has been] an exchange of information - not yet technology - to see how to make that work."



Source: Flight International