UAVs (Follow Up)

Update: Reader Frank points out that JUCAS was canceled early last year (covered in Defense Tech here), and the Northrup-Grumman demonstrator is part of the N-UCAS program, which rose from the demise of JUCAS. An Air Force lead as the executive agent for UCAV programs would have still had cognizance over any Navy program (including the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program (BAMS), so the main thrust of the post remains. Thanks, Frank.
Christian’s post of yesterday talking about how the Air Force has lost its grasp on being the executive agent for all unmanned aerial vehicles (medium- to high-flying UAVs and tactical mobility responsibilities) is really the tip of a huge iceberg regarding unmanned capabilities.
The crux of this situation revolves around Congress, who mandated in the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act, that “by 2010, one-third of the aircraft in the operational deep strike force aircraft fleet are unmanned.”
“Deep-strike” is one of the most important aspects of any air campaign, for obvious reasons. For the Air Force, this isn’t much of a problem with their ground support infrastructure built around a two and a half mile-long or longer runway (assuming they have basing rights relatively close to an area of operations). For the Navy, however, this mandate presents significant technical and logistical problems - taking off and landing back on an aircraft carrier is not the easiest thing to do, and doing it with an unmanned 20,000 lb jet would strike fear into even the hardiest flight deck personnel.
DARPA’s Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (JUCAS), a demonstrator program which, for the Air Force AND Navy, is to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value for a networked system of high performance, weaponized unmanned air vehicles, talks about a platform with a radius of 1300 nm, a persistence capability of 1000 nm with 2 hrs loiter time and a payload of 4500 lb. Northrop-Grumman was recently awarded the contract for this demonstrator, the X-47B. This is no Predator-sized aerial vehicle. Having one hiccup in the data stream of flight data controlling the thing when it is at the ramp is not a good thing.
Yesterday’s post spoke of Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England halting the “U.S. Air Force’s controversial push to take over management of the Pentagon’s growing Unmanned Air System (UAS) fleet.” To the Navy (and the Army to some extent since they, too, were grumpy about the AF cornering the market on UCAV management) this was sweet music. With so many rice bowls around and competitions to see who has the biggest bladder, and with the technical challenges that the Navy has in carrier-izing a UCAV, taking another look at this whole mandated capability is a good thing.
-Pinch Paisley

  • JUCAS Architect

    This article is FUD. First and foremost, “hiccups in the data stream” don’t happen with an autonomous vehicle. The X-45 and X-47 vehicles aren’t dumb fly-by-wire systems like Predator or GlobalHawk. They are completely autonomous vehicles that are in control of their entire flight regime from take-off to landing and require no human input or interaction to complete their missions. Second, the ability to auto-land on a carrier has existed for decades. That it isn’t used or widely known is a testament to the machismo of Naval aviators and not an indictment of autonomous landing technology. Anyone espousing fear of this technology is expressing a profound ignorance of the technical realities.

  • cynicism

    There is absolutely no chance of a bug or an AI “glitch”. Zero. And anyway, if it hits the wrong target, this is Iraq we’re talking about.. What’s the big deal?

  • Rip

    Looking at the big picture, it appears the USAF made a decision to withdraw from the UCAV track for publicly vague reasons. Some believe it was a victory for the “fighter mafia” insuring much less likelihood of competition for the F-22 and eventually, the F-35. The hard fighter jocks look at the 2001 NDAA and say, “F’em - they’re just a bunch of politicians…”
    They (USAF) are still advancing the ISR UAV (Preaditor/Reaper, Global Hawk, and perhaps some black programs); however, the increasing success of the armed MQ-1/MQ-9 is an embarrassing reality they would like to go away. (It will not!)
    Meanwhile, the recently floated USN studies make a very compelling case for the CAG UCAV to insure the carrier’s relevance in at least the first half of this century.
    The next key strategic event will be if the USAF proposes as part of the Global Strike System (i.e., the B-3), to include an unmanned MQB-3 variant. If they don’t elect this option, and have nothing under the black kimono, then they are ceding the technology and lead to the USN for years to come.
    The “man overseeing the loop” is the future in the DoD, it’s sad to see the USAF, who toots the image of being in tune with the future, fighting a battle based on tactical retrograde.

  • demophilus

    Maybe USAF’s figuring that if the USN/carrier system works, they can dump the arresting gear, lighten the landing gear, and get a more capable dual mode system. Or maybe that’s just a taxpayer’s fantasy.
    No offense, but it wasn’t so long ago that the F-22’s computer systems crashed on their deployment to Okinawa. The meat puppets had to fly them back to Hawaii.
    A lot of us don’t trust our computers. They crash, sometimes for no reason. Especially, if we’re running Microsoft apps.
    Redundant, highly tested systems are a beautiful thing, but sometimes they’re only as foolproof as their assumptions. Catastrophe theory and uncertainty are the enemies of anything highly engineered, and they’re hard (if not impossible) to beat. You can test something until Doomsday, and all you’ll find is what you tested for. Some glitches only happen later. When they do, they can be spectacular.

  • Trent Telenko

    I think this passage from a August 20, 2007 Financial Times article titled “US Military In Dogfight Over Drones” covers the UAV issue from the US Army point of view.

  • Robophilus

    Demophilus, human pilots are not “foolproof” either.
    A lot of us don’t trust human pilots. They crash, sometimes for no reason. In the past 100 years, humans have broken a lot of airplanes trying to get them on and off aircraft carriers. Yet that doesn’t invalidate the “human pilot” concept - nor should (inevitable) accidents invalidate the robot pilot concept.

  • demophilus

    Agreed. Didn’t mean to suggest that a carrier UCAS is invalid. Just don’t think it’ll go off without a hitch. That’s not how shit happens.
    Don’t think we’ve seen the end of man in the loop either, and I don’t buy “no human input or interaction to complete their missions”. In war things don’t go according to plan. If Plan A is a machine, Plan B is having a human in the loop to reboot or troubleshoot it.
    That’s simple redundancy. Didn’t mean to suggest anything more.