At a briefing the week of August 14, 2006, a Lockheed Martin official said that an F-35 unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) has actually been quietly in the works since 2004. Lockheed is working on an F-35 hybrid – an aircraft that can be operated manned or unmanned, depending upon the mission. (With the doubling every 18 months of the capability of unmanned systems, one might assume that the days of a manned F-35 will be limited).
The F-35 is to be produced in three versions. The first will replace the F-16 and used by the USAF as a typical Air Force aircraft operated from elaborate bases with long runways. The F-35 will operate from the same facilities flying the new F-22. A second version will be operated by the USN from carriers. The third version is to replace the F/A-8 Harrier and be a VTOL version operated by the USMC from remote strips hacked out of the countryside. As a carrier aircraft, the F-35 would allow the Navy to operate smaller carriers as the F-35 does not require a 1,000-foot flight deck a la the F-18. (In fact, the Navy is now looking at building such “jeep” carriers at less that half the size and half the cost of the upcoming CVN-21-class of supercarrier – ships the Navy may not be able to afford as more and more of the defense budget is sucked-up by unconventional warfare).
While the percentage of DOD research spending on unmanned aircraft is very small ($2 billion this year), it has increased seven fold since 2001 and is predicted to exceed $3 billion a year within the next several years.
Unmanned aircraft are a flight crew’s nightmare, of course. Aircrew have been one of the military’s best-trained elite since World War I, when air battles between opposing “single warrior” aircraft caught and forever held the non-flying public’s romantic imagination, evoking the fantasy of selfless knighthood from the time before firearms ended armor-clad men on horseback. In 2001, when the DOD announced that it was its goal to have 1/3 of the total of military aircraft unmanned by 2010, aircrew blood ran cold. Since then, UAVs and UCAVs have repeatedly been in the news in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, where these usually small machines have tirelessly track the enemy and often attacked them as well, all on the cheap and without the risk of loss of American life. The American public, saturated with movies, TV shows, and video games depicting a world of antiseptic, fun-filled warfare has reached the point where a sizable plurality simply will no longer accept any US combat deaths. The Air Force briefly ran a series of recruiting ads showing a young man in a patch-covered flight suit sitting before a computer screen in a darkened room, controlling a UAV in some distant location. While the Air Force has not publicly commented upon the efficacy of these ads, they did sicken aircrew who watched them. Earlier this year, the Navy tested the RQ-8A Fire Scout VTOL UAV from USS Nashville, where it was remotely launched and recovered at sea. When/if the P-8A is built, it is to have an operator on board who will control a UAV as it extends the manned aircraft’s search radius.
One of the ironies of this situation is that it is precisely the high-prestige fast-mover tacair aircraft that will be the first to be replaced with UCAVs since they will more readily able to replace a one- or two-man crew. The larger, unglamorous aircraft such as the P-3C, EP-3E, E-6, B-52, etc., must await far more capable systems than now exist before replacing their crews will be doable. A P-3C’s crew employs a crew of twelve to locate, track, and attack enemy subs.
When Billy Mitchell’s Martin MB-2 bombers sank the ex-German battleship Ostfriesland on July 21, 1921 with six 2000 lb. bombs, admirals watching broke into tears and the navy was so horrified that it declared the tests void, claiming that Mitchell had violated the guidelines. But it also began to focus more on aviation. Today, despite the fact that, for the most part, both the Navy and the Air Force are run by people with wings on their uniforms, UAVs are here. The issue is not whether the F-35 will soon join the Global Hawk as one of the US’ premiere UCAVs. The issue is how soon.
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