Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV)


  1. Do you think unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) will replace manned fighter jets in the future?
    For certain missions, I think the UCAV will replace manned aircraft. In particular, they are desirable for performing suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions, such as destroying enemy surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, as these are some of the most dangerous missions flown by manned planes. UCAVs would also be useful in completing other types of air-to-ground attacks, especially those against heavily defended targets that would be risky to send pilots into. However, I don't see UCAVs performing air-to-air combat against other aircraft anytime soon because the computer control systems lack the decision-making skills and situational awareness of a human pilot.
  2. Do you think unmanned aircraft are worth the effort?
    In general, I think concept of an unmanned combat aircraft is an idea whose time has come. While much work still needs to be done, they are potentially much cheaper and in some respects more capable than manned aircraft. I see the major advantaes of the UCAV as combining the low cost of a cruise missile with the reusability of an aircraft. With the way defense spending has dropped over the last decade, I think this may be the military's most cost-effective option in the future.
  3. What are the pros and cons of UCAVs?
    Pros include:
      1) significantly lower cost compared to manned vehicles (although they can get pretty expensive depending on their sophistication); this should allow the military to buy UCAVs in much larger quantities than manned aircraft
      2) expendability, you can afford to send them into heavily defended areas and risk losing some without endangering a pilot
      3) more maneuverable than manned planes without the limitations of a human pilot
      4) can be built stealthier than a manned plane since one of the least stealthy parts of the aircraft (the cockpit) is unnecessary
      5) should be lighter, smaller, and easier to transport
    Cons include:
      1) limitations of their programming, may not be able to compensate for the changing battlefield environment (such as being able to attack a new more desirable target that appeared after the aircraft was launched or changing course to avoid enemy defenses)
      2) because they are typically smaller than a manned plane, they cannot carry as large a payload (however, they do generally have a greater ratio of payload to total weight)
      3) along the same lines, they may not be able to carry as much fuel and therefore may have a shorter range
      4) typically tailored to specific kinds of missions and not as versatile as a modern multi-role fighter
      5) if contact is lost with a ground station, the vehicle may be lost
  4. What are the pros and cons of manned planes?
    Pros include:
      1) larger payload
      2) better survivability features (including sturdier structure, more thorough set of countermeasures, better avionics suite)
      3) a trained, thinking pilot is still far superior in understanding the battlefield and how to best utilize his assets to accomplish the mission than any computer
    Cons include:
      1) higher cost not only to buy the aircraft but to operate it, maintain it, and keep pilots trained and proficient
      2) greater complexity
  5. Would the success of air-to-air combat be in favor of a UCAV since it would be able to pull tighter turns than a human pilot could withstand?
    This question is hard to answer because it depends so much on conditions. Air-to-air combat is often fought at ranges of 10 to 30 miles these days where maneuverability in a dogfight makes little difference. Probably the greatest advantage a UCAV would have over a manned vehicle is the greater difficulty in detecting what should be a much smaller, stealthier shape.
  6. Are UCAVs proving successful so far?
    It's still much too early to say as the only UCAV projects are still in very early stages. I believe only two such aircraft, the Boeing X-45 for the US Air Force and the Northrop Grumman X-47 for the US Navy, have even been built. The X-45 has only flown a couple of times and the X-47 not at all. These two vehicles are research craft designed to test technologies that will be necessary for future production UCAVs. The Predator might be considered a "converted" UCAV since it was designed for reconnaissance but some have been armed for combat. It's had good success in attacking targets as far as I've heard, but several have been shot down over Iraq and Afghanistan due to the vehicle's slow speed, low altitude, and lack of stealth. An improved Predator-B with a much larger payload and improved survivability features is also under development.
  7. What do the various branches of the military think about this kind of aircraft?
    The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have all shown interest in UCAVs but progress has been slow since many of the decision makers are former pilots themselves who dislike the idea of arming unmanned aircraft. I think all the services will adopt them for certain missions, but they will likely play a secondary role to manned planes, and it will take time to overcome the bias against unmanned combat vehicles.
  8. If you were a fighter pilot would you like the idea of unmanned fighters taking over your job? Why or why not?
    I do know several fighter pilots, and their general opinion seems to be that UCAVs are great for going after heavily defended targets or SAM sites, but no machine can ever or should ever replace a human in any mission that requires complex decision making.
  9. Do you think funding for UCAVs will be more or less than that spent to produce manned fighters?
    In the near term, spending on UCAVs will likely be far less than on manned planes. So much funding has been dedicated to the F-22, F-18E/F, and Joint Strike Fighter that there is very little left for anything else for at least the next 10 or 15 years. I think we'll see some more experimental vehicles and maybe limited production in the meantime, but I doubt any UCAV will enter wide-spread service before 2015.
  10. How advanced is the UCAV intelligence in terms of self-judgement?
    That is the single biggest challenge remaining in the development of unmanned aircraft--the ability of a computer to "understand" the combat environment and "decide" how best to proceed. Current technology allows missiles to be programmed to attack a specific point or a human controller can override the programming to attack some other target that may be more desirable. There is quite a bit of work currently going on to develop smarter guidance systems that allow missiles to seek out targets on their own, prioritize them, and attack them with little or no input from a human controller. This technology too is in the early stages and won't be seen in production weapons for at least a decade.
  11. Will a UCAV incorporate evading mechanisms such as countermeasures, flares, chaff, stealth, maneuverabilty, or jammers?
    Most UCAVs will almost surely incorporate stealth characteristics since they are already being included on new generations of missiles and bombs and possibly greater maneuverability. Other countermeasures like chaff, flares, and jammers might be included depending on the type of mission or environment the vehicle is designed for, cost limitations, and the needs of the user.
  12. Will all UCAVs be flown and controlled by ground crew or flown solely by the flight computer?
    I would guess that any UCAV would almost surely be programmed to fly to a target area on its own, but there will likely be some kind of human interaction or complete control during the actual weapon launch.
  13. What kind of weapons will UCAVs carry?
    Probably some sort of next-generation guided weapon, the so-called "brilliant bombs." Based on how the weapons are carried (such as the size and number of bomb bays), a UCAV might be armed with a single 1,000 to 2,000 lb weapon or multiple smaller weapons in the 100 to 500 lb class. They may also carry next-generation submunitions capable of loitering over the battlefield under their own power allowing them to search for the best targets. The Hellfire short-range anti-armor missile and Stinger anti-aircraft missile have already been integrated on Predator and similar types of weapons will probably be used on Predator-B. Other likely candidates for use on UCAVs include the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) series of guided bombs, the smaller but more powerful Small Diameter Bomb, the Low Cost Autonomous Attack System (LOCAAS) miniature guided missile, and perhaps the Joint Stand-Off Missile (JSOW) or High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM).
  14. What would a UCAV do in case of a mechanical or electrical failure?
    If the failure was significant enough to compromise the success of the mission (such as a loss of communication with the control station), the aircraft would most likely be programmed to abort and return to land at some pre-programmed location. This is already done on the Predator, X-45, and X-47.

- answer by Jeff Scott, 16 June 2002


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