The Predator B
Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV) will make todays piloted planes seem like flying bricks by comparison, with advantages too long to list here. For starters though, no pilot means a lighter, smaller, and cheaper aircraft. Large canopies, pilot displays, and environmental control systems will disappear.
"The UCAV offers new design freedoms that can be exploited to produce a smaller, simpler aircraft, about half the size of a conventional fighter aircraft," according to the Federation of American Scientists. It would weigh only about one-third to one-fourth as much as a manned plane. Costs will also be slashed. Boeings X-45 UCAV will probably be a third the price of the forthcoming manned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to the defense policy website GlobalSecurity.org.
Moreover, typically 80 percent of the useful life of todays combat aircraft is devoted to pilot training and proficiency flying. Therefore a UCAV would require a fraction of the maintenance time and spare parts of a manned vehicle.
You can forget about pilot fatigue since controls can easily be handed off to somebody else. Pilot error will be greatly reduced since the controller will never be worrying about losing his own skin.
Amazingly, several types of new robot combat aircraft could be in action within just five years.
Instead of merely carrying two Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, the Hunter-Killer can carry a variety of weapons, including both satellite – and laser-guided bombs. Its radar, cameras, and sensors will also be upgraded, allowing it to instantly track and attack moving vehicles. The Air Force already has six combat-ready Predator Bs and plans to soon acquire 14 more, according to General Atomics. The company will soon be able to pump out two a month.
The X-45 is jet-powered and will fly just below the speed of sound. It resembles something of an oblong pancake with wings. At only 39 feet long, the latest configuration (X-45C) is little over half the length of Americas top fighter, the F-15 Eagle, albeit with a slightly larger wingspan. Most amazingly, at four feet tall youd have to stack four of them to equal the height of the F-15.
The latest versions, the X-45C and its Navy variant the X-45CN, will carry as many as 4,500 pounds of missiles and bombs, fly at 40,000 feet, and can strike targets 750 miles away. The first X-45 flew three years ago and the more capable C version should take to the skies in 2007, such that the jets may enter service by 2010.
The X-47 Pegasus
The X-47A is also capable of flying off aircraft carriers. Its first flight was in early 2003. The larger and more capable X-47B is expected to fly late next year with assessment ending 2009. With luck, the X-47B will be combat operational shortly thereafter.
None of these amazing aircraft should encourage more cuts in FA-22 Raptor purchases nor scaling back the F-35 program. We need both planes ASAP to counter the aircraft and missile defense systems of countries like China and North Korea that can wallop our current jets. But perhaps the forthcoming robotic combat aircraft may do more than beat our enemies; perhaps theyll help ensure they dont become our enemies at all.
Read Michael Fumentos additional writing on the military.