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The Opportunity:

In the Fall of 1997, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) calling for an unmanned strike fighter with the following design requirements:

UCAV Request for Proposal

Description Requirement
Maximum flyaway cost: $8 million (1996$) - average price for 1,000 buy
Operational life: 100 missions (~500 hours)
Payload: 1,000 lb Advanced Guided Bomb
Range/performance: 800 NM radius, cruise Mach >= 0.7
at 40,000+ ft with 1.5 turns
midmission at cruise speed/altitude,
with instant turn rate >= 20 /s
Alternative mission: Calculate total range for mission with
200 NM ingress/egress segments at
250 ft at Mach 0.9
Acceleration: Mach 0.4 to 0.8 at 5,000 ft in 40 s (or less)
Specific excess power: +225 ft/s at 5,000 ft at Mach 0.4 (or more)
Ferry range: 3,000 NM (external tanks allowed)
Takeoff/landing: Conventional, < 5,000 ft
Propulsion: Off-the-shelf commercial jet engine
Signature: Low observables (stealth) including
radar cross section (RCS) and infrared (IR)
500 lb allowance for classified treatments
Avionics: GPS guidance, flight computers, data links,
electro-optical (EO)/infrared (IR) sensor,
electronic warfare (EW) countermeasures,
modular bay, 500 lb weight allowance
Crew: Unmanned, but man-in-loop for weapons drop
Deployment envelope: 8 at a time can be shipped in a C-5 Galaxy
transport aircraft
Storage: Long term, almost mission-ready storage-capable

What is a UAV?

An unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is one of many similar types of aircraft which do not carry a pilot onboard. At the lower end of this scale are remotely controlled (R/C) planes like those built and flown by modellers. Though a pilot is obviously not aboard the aircraft, the plane is controlled by a pilot throughout its flight.

A similar type of aircraft is the remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) which is essentially an enlarged version of the R/C plane. For many years, RPV's have been used by the military as target drones, test aircraft, and reconnaissance platforms.

The UAV, on the otherhand, differs from remotely controlled aircraft in that a pilot is not needed during most or all of the flight. Instead, the plane is controlled by computers. Most UAV's rely on pre-programmed flight paths guiding them to and from the area of interest, though human interaction is possible throughout the flight.

UAV's are commonplace in all branches of today's military. Some of the more well-known examples include the Navy's Pioneer and the Air Force's Darkstar and Global Hawk. These UAV's are used to obtain battlefield and theatre reconnaissance.

A new type of UAV which is still under development and is the subject of this project is the Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). As its name implies, the UCAV goes beyond observation and is designed to attack enemy targets.

Why Build the UCAV?

One of the greatest recent developments in military weaponry is the cruise missile, exemplified by the Tomahawk. As demonstrated repeatedly in Iraq and other world hot-spots, the cruise missile can be used in pinpoint attacks against heavily defended targets deep within enemy territory without risking a human pilot.

However, missiles can only be used once, and as their cost escalates, the military must seek a more cost effective attack weapon. The solution to this problem is the UCAV. Able to deliver a payload to a target and return to fight again, this aircraft combines the capability and relatively low cost of cruise missiles with the reusability of manned aircraft. This versatility would provide a battlefield commander with a wider range of options.

The removal of the pilot also gives aircraft designers more options. Modern military aircraft are very large, heavy, complex, and expensive because of the human-related systems they must carry (e.g. environmental systems, ejection seats, and instrumentation). By eliminating these needs, an unmanned aircraft can be built much smaller, much lighter, and more aerodynamic than its manned counterpart. In addition, the performance of the aircraft would no longer be limited by the tolerances of its human pilot, but only by the strength of its airframe and the capabilites of its engine.

A third major advantage of the UCAV is its cost. In today's environment of tight budgets, the military must find new ways to reduce its need for large numbers of expensive aircraft. The solution adopted over recent years has been to increase the survivability of manned aircraft through the use of advanced stealth treatments and avionics packages. However, these features are not cheap. For example, the Air Force's new F-22 Raptor air-supriority fighter is estimated to cost between $60 million and $100 million largely because of these needs.

The UCAV, on the otherhand, could virtually eliminate the need for these expensive features. Because of its small size, a UCAV offers greater "natural" stealth. In addition, the bulky, highly radar reflective cockpit would not be needed so the aircraft could be given a very stealthy "manta ray" shape. Nor would extensive avionics be required because of the aircraft's expendability.

Summary:

Because they are relatively inexpensive, expendable, and difficult to detect, UCAV's have much to offer the US military. Technology has now advanced to the stage where unmanned aircraft could lead first-wave attacks on heavily defended enemy targets without endangering human pilots. While an unmanned aircraft may never replace a skilled, thinking human pilot, the UCAV could potentially revolutionize the battlefield of the future.




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