The handwriting was on the wall -- or in the sky as it were -- when an unmanned Predator aircraft destroyed a Taliban target in late 2001 with a Hellfire missile. We're now ushering in an era of fighter-bombers that will strike targets with deadly efficiency while putting no American pilots in harm's way.
Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV) will make today's 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. Boeing's 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 today's 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.
One, General Atomic's Predator B called the "Hunter-Killer," is already here. While several versions are under development, they all should be able to fly at 50,000 feet -- twice the altitude reachable by the original. The B can also carry ten times the munitions load. Its turboprop engine allows it to fly faster than 300 miles per hour and stay aloft for as many as 32 hours. That equals a third of the ground phase of Operation Desert Storm.
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 America's top fighter, the F-15 Eagle, albeit with a slightly larger wingspan. Most amazingly, at four feet tall you'd 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.
Northrop Grumman's X-47A Pegasus resembles a kite. It's an ideal stealth plane, with no obtruding tail or fins, a tiny length of 28 feet matched by an almost identical wingspan, a height of six feet, and construction mostly of composite materials. Like the X-45, it can be carrier-based and it should be able to strike targets 750 miles away while carrying 4,500-pounds of weapons at a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet.
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 they'll help ensure they don't become our enemies at all.