Wednesday, August 10, 2005

X-45A UCAVs Complete Combat Demonstration

A Boeing Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems X-45A demonstrator flies over a test range recently near Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Two X-45As completed their graduation combat demonstration flight August 10. (NASA image)

Another milesone in the progress of automated combat aviation was reached today when two jet-powered Boeing (St. Louis, MO) X-45A unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) performed a simulated strike mission as "wingmen."

In Boeing's words:

Two Boeing Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) X-45A unmanned aircraft successfully completed a graduation exercise when they flew their most challenging simulated combat mission today at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

For test flights 63 and 64, the X-45As departed from the base, climbed to altitude, and autonomously used their on-board decision-making software to determine the best route of flight within the "area of action" or AOA. The pilot on the ground approved the plan and the two unmanned vehicles entered the AOA, a 30 by 60 mile area within the test range, ready to perform a simulated Preemptive Destruction-Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses mission. The mission involved identifying, attacking and destroying pre-identified ground-based radars and associated missile launchers before they could be used to launch surface-to-air missiles.

During the test flight, the X-45A unmanned aircraft faced a simulated "pop-up" threat, used evasive maneuvers to avoid it, and autonomously determined which vehicle held the optimum position, weapons and fuel to attack the higher priority simulated target. Once the pilot authorized the attack, the unmanned aircraft simulated dropping weapons on the target. After engaging and destroying a second simulated target, the two X-45As completed their mission and safely returned to Edwards.

The next step for Boeing is to build and flight test three X-45C aircraft, two mission control elements, and integrate the J-UCAS Common Operating System (the software used and tested on the X-45A may be offered as a candidate for functionality in the development of the J-UCAS Common Operating System). The first X-45C will be completed in 2006, with flight test scheduled to begin in 2007. It will be 39 feet long with a 49-foot wingspan, cruise at 0.80 Mach at an altitude of 40,000 feet, carry a 4,500 pound weapon payload, and be able to fly a combat radius of more than 1,200 nautical miles.
Boeing Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems X-45As prepare to launch on a recent mission at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Two X-45As completed a critical combat demonstration flight August 10. (Boeing Photo)

The J-UCAS program involves more than developing an automated strike aircraft. Arguably, a penetration strike mission is a fairly straightforward problem in that any number of cruise and stand-off type weapons with inertial/GPS navigation can perform this right now (although they aren't expected to come home again). Generally, the mission plan of a strike weapon is generated with an eye toward guiding it around navigational hazards and air-defense zones. That the X-45As in the recent Dryden flight test were able to evade a "pop-up" threat that presumably was not programmed into their mission plans and were subsequently able to retask themselves to engage it while also completing their original mission is a significant step forward. It is worth noting that a human operator remained in the loop to "pull the trigger."

The key capability is for groups of unmanned strike aircraft to conduct missions cooperatively, just as manned aircraft strike packages do. Moreover, the unmanned and manned aircraft will all have to operate together in the same battlespace. In many ways this is going to be the most difficult challenge. The idea that unmanned aircraft are simply going to replace manned aircraft on dangerous combat missions is almost certainly off the mark. A much more likely vision of the future is small groups of manned aircraft working in concert with UAV swarms to overwhelm the enemy.

For more on UCAV programs in the US and Europe, see Drones That Sting.

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