Military Embedded Systems

Unmanned fighter planes (UCAVs) and the kill web


June 09, 2020

Ray Alderman

VITA Standards Organization

Unmanned fighter planes (UCAVs) and the kill web

WARFARE EVOLUTION BLOG. Unmanned autonomous fighter planes are the most interesting elements in the advanced kill web, even more intriguing than the manned super-stealthy 6G fighter planes we discussed in previous articles. UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) have the potential to render our enemy’s A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) strategies completely obsolete. These platforms appear under different names: Loyal Wingman, ATC (Airpower Teaming System), Dark Sword, Taranis, Remote Carriers, nEUROn, and Sidekicks. To understand how they enhance the kill web, we need to look at their specifications and their missions.

There are three basic types of UCAVs. The first class are “expendables”, that are launched by fighter planes or bombers in the air. They are small drones, cheap to manufacture, and can carry weapons, jammers, or sensors. These little planes never return to base. The second class are called "attritables," meaning that they can be sacrificed but not in great number. They can cost a few million dollars each, carry weapons, jammers, or ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] systems, and land back at home base if they survive the fight. The final class are called “survivables” and they can cost up to $50 million each. They perform many of the same missions as manned fighter planes and are expected to return to base. Boeing recently replaced an F-16 pilot with computers in the cockpit, making the fighter plane autonomous. At about $20 million each, they are survivables.

Let’s start our study with the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, since those new drones are doing flight tests over us here in Arizona. This plane looks like a smaller version of the low-radar-cross-section F-35, not like the ugly bulbous-nosed propeller-driven Predator or Reaper drones that fly at 300 mph. Valkyrie is propelled by a turbofan jet engine and flies at 650 mph. It has a combat radius of about 1,500 miles, twice that of the F-35. The XQ-58A has a ceiling of 45,000 feet, is 30 feet long with a wingspan of 27 feet, and is roughly half the size of an F-35. The ordinance load is two bombs or missiles in its internal weapons bay (no weapons on hard points under the wings to spoil its low RCS).

The Valkyrie can take off and land on a runway, or it can be launched like a missile and landed by parachute. There will be multiple versions of the XQ-58A, some with weapons and others with ISR, sensor, and jamming equipment onboard. On first impressions, this drone tilts more toward the expendable class than the attritable class and will cost $2 million to $3 million each. For comparison, a Tomahawk cruise missile costs about $1.4 million, flies at 550 mph, has a range of 1,500 miles, is about 20 feet long with a wingspan of 9 feet, can hit one single target, and is not expected to return to base. The Air Force could buy a few hundred Valkyries for the price of one tricked-out F-35. At this point, Kratos is building 12 planes for delivery in 2021. A few will be integrated into the Air Force “Skyborg” AI-based autonomous fighter plane test program and the remainder will go to other customers.

To read more Warfare Evolution Blogs by Ray Alderman, click here.

Next up is Boeing’s ATS (Airpower Teaming System) UCAV, developed for the Australian Air Force. It has a length of 38 feet and a wingspan of 24 feet, not much different than the XQ-58A. It looks similar to the Valkyrie (trapezoidal fuselage, a long nose with a chin, dual tail fins), but the air intakes are on the sides of the fuselage while the Valkyrie air intake is on top of its fuselage. ATS will be jet-powered and have a combat radius of about 1,150 miles. We don’t know anything about the speed, ceiling, ordinance load, or RCS since Boeing just put weight on the wheels of the first prototype in May. Flight tests are scheduled for later this year and they will cost $3 million to $4 million each, according to estimates.

The big difference is the nose of the ATS: it’s 8.5 feet long with 52 cubic feet of volume and can be removed and quickly replaced with a weapons bay, ISR systems, or jamming equipment for different missions. The ATS nose is obviously longer than the nose on the XQ-58A. Boeing is building threeee prototypes for ground taxi and flight testing later this year. From what we know, this drone seems to lean more toward the attritables than the expendables.

Then there’s the SR-72, in design at Lockheed since 2013. It’s 100 feet long, has a ceiling of 80,000 feet, it’s shaped like a wedge, and will fly at Mach 6. If this plane flys in the hypersonic range, we know two things about it: (1) it will most likely be unmanned, and (2) it will use ADVENT engines (ADaptive Versatile ENgine Technology). A turbofan engine will only get the airplane to about Mach 3 (2,301 mph). We need a ramjet engine to get to Mach 6 (4,306 mph). So the engines on the SR-72 must be combined-cycle engines (turbofan-ramjets). This plane is slated for flight tests in 2023. Lockheed says the SR-72 is designed for ISR missions, just like the SR-71 (which flew at Mach 2.85). I doubt we will see the SR-72 drop bombs. Just imagine what happens to the weapons bay doors when they are opened at 4,300 mph.

What are the missions for these unmanned fighter planes? Basically, they speed-up the phases of the 5F kill web model: Find (identify), Fix (track), Fire, Finish, and Feedback. These UCAVs go ahead of the manned fighters and bombers, into the A2/AD zone. First, the ISTAR-equipped (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) planes go in as scouts, to find enemy targets and share them with the weapons platforms connected to the kill web. Then, the drones with SIGINT [signals intelligence], ELINT [electronic intelligence], and EW (electronic warfare) equipment onboard come in and disrupt the enemy’s communications and radar with jamming and cyber warfare techniques. They are followed by the unmanned fighters carrying missiles and bombs, to neutralize enemy air defense radar, missile launchers, and anti-aircraft guns.

Manned fighter planes then come in, with larger bombs, to destroy enemy infrastructure and command and control centers. Manned bomber aircraft like the B-1, B-2, B-52, and B-21, circling high overhead, then drop GPS or laser-guided bombs to finish any remaining targets identified by the ISTAR-equipped UCAVs. This process will be accomplished in minutes or hours, depending on the size of the battlefield. In a CAS (close air support) role for ground troops, these unmanned fighter planes can drop a swarm of smaller PERDIX drones in the kill zone, containing explosive warheads that operate like guided hand grenades. These micro-drones will find and destroy enemy machine-gun nests, pill boxes, and troops hiding in trenches and behind rocks. The U.S. Navy did this back in 2016 with 103 PERDIX micro-drones at China Lake in California, so they are definitely in the expendables class.

As you can see, UCAVs go into the combat area first, to clear enemy A2/AD weapons on the ground and increase the survivability of manned fighter planes and bombers that follow. The next step is to equip UCAVs with advanced artificial intelligence capabilities, so they can learn to  dogfight in the air against enemy manned fighter planes. That comes under DARPA’s ACE program (Air Combat Evolution) and the "Alphadogfight Trials." We may see an XQ-58A chasing an F-35 in the skies over Arizona next year. It costs about $10 million to train an F-22 or F-35 pilot. It will cost at least that much to train the first Valkyrie AI computers to dogfight, but the next 1,000 UCAVs get the software for free.

Who else is developing unmanned fighter planes? The British (BAE Systems) flew the Taranis UCAV for the first time in 2013. It took-off, flew some maneuvers for an hour, and landed autonomously. It's a flying-wing design that’s 40 feet long with a wingspan of 32 feet. The specs say it can fly faster than Mach 1 (767 mph), but we know from my previous articles here that flying wings become very unstable when they fly supersonic.

France (Dassault Systems) and some other EU [European Union] countries have been developing the nEUROn UCAV. It’s another flying-wing design that’s 31 feet long with a 41-foot wingspan. Powered by a jet engine, the nEUROn can fly at 609 mph and has a ceiling of about 46,000 feet. The first flight was in 2012, and the engineers have been tweaking the design for a few years now. Germany and France (Airbus) announced the LOUT (Low Observable UAV Testbed) UCAV in 2019. It’s another flying-wing design. Length is about 35 feet and wingspan is 40 feet. It will be jet-powered, but we don’t have any other specs at this point. All they have right now is a mock-up made from aluminum and plastic.

What are our enemies doing? Russia flew their SU-70 Okhotnik-B prototype UCAV in 2019. It’s yet another jet-powered flying-wing design with a wingspan of 65 feet. It flies at 620 mph and has a combat radius of about 1,700 miles. This plane is big and heavy: it weighs more than 44,000 pounds empty. An F-35 fighter plane only weighs about 30,000 pounds empty. When you think about it, the SU-70 looks more like a bomb-truck than a fighter plane. It fits the “Remote Carrier” name better than the others discussed here.

China, not to be left out, is developing their 601-S Dark Sword UCAV. It’s not a flying-wing design: it looks more like the Boeing ATS than the Kratos Valkyrie. Pictures of the mock-up suggest that it's 30 feet long and has dual tail fins. It will be jet-powered, and those tail fins tell us the 601-S is designed to fly above Mach 1. China seems to lag Russia in the development of UCAVs at this point. As for Iran and North Korea, they can’t even build 4G fighter planes yet, so no UCAV threats from them on the horizon.

By now, you have learned how UCAVs can help the kill web manipulate time and space against our enemies and shorten wars. In February 1991, Operation Desert Sabre (The Gulf War) used 500,000 troops, hundreds of planes and helicopters, six aircraft carriers, and hundreds of tanks to drive the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait in 100 hours. Could a few manned fighter planes, hundreds of UCAVs, and a few thousand explosive PERDIX drones accomplish that mission in 48, or even 24 hours? Maybe 48 hours, but not 24. The Iraqi troops could not retreat that fast.

On another point, you also discovered that the kill web will operate instinctively, in seconds, when all the AI-based ISTAR and weapons systems are perfected. If the enemy has to think about his decisions he will be dead in 10 minutes or less, just like AF General John Jumper wanted. Jumper really understood Lister’s Law: “People under time pressure don't think faster."

That wraps-up our expedition into unmanned fighter planes, their basic characteristics, and their missions. I invite you to do some web searches on the aircraft mentioned above, and look at the pictures or the artist’s conceptual drawings. They do look cool and deadly, even more so than the 6G fighter planes in design.

Back in February, Elon Musk was a speaker at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Conference in Orlando. The audience contained hundreds of hot-shot fighter-jocks. Musk started his comments with, "The fighter-jet era has passed." A day later, General James Holmes (commander of the Air Combat Command) spoke and said that the Air Force is looking at replacing manned fighter planes with the XQ-58A Valkyrie in the next five to eight years, as the aging F-16 fighters are retired. Those statements informed the fighter pilots that they could soon be out of a job. Additionally, the Air Force opened a study in June, to define the replacements for the MQ-9 and RQ-9 Reaper drones for both combat and ISR missions (respectively). After reading this article, I think you know what they will look like.

On our next mission, we will explore how UFOs [unidentified flying objects] fit in the kill web. That may sound like an unrealistic farfetched implausible science-fiction machination, but recently unclassified events demand that we explore the possibilities. So before we meet again, put-on your tinfoil hats, read about the Drake Equation, review Fermi’s Paradox, familiarize yourself with the Sagan-Newman Theory, understand the Kardashev Scale, and think about what Arthur C. Clarke said in his third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

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