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Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems [ J-UCAS ]

Inside the Air Force reported on January 13, 2006, that the Department of Defense had terminated the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program in anticipation of policy prescriptions reportedly set in the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review.

The Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) Program was a joint DARPA / Air Force / Navy effort. The purpose is to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value for a networked system of high performance and weaponized unmanned air vehicles to effectively and affordably prosecute 21st century combat missions, including Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses; Electronic Attack; Precision Targeting & Strike; and Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance within the emerging global command and control architecture.

What an unmanned vehicle offers is the removal of human restrictions. Physically removing humans from combat vehicles really gives an edge in several areas. First, it offers the ability to fly for long periods of time - increased endurance and persistence. This comes partly as a function of increased fuel capacity for a given aircraft size because equipment required to support a human is deleted. More importantly, it gives a mission time limited only by the machine and not the physiological needs of a pilot. Second, there is the potential for greater survivability. This might be through the decreased radar cross section possible without a cockpit; or, perhaps through the ability to pull many more g's than could be tolerated by even the most experienced fighter pilot. Lastly, it might give an advantage in cost - perhaps in eliminating the need for training flights.

The ancestor of today's J-UCAS was the Uninhabited Tactical Aircraft (or UTA) program. This early effort featured low cost, small air vehicles that would later be known as Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (or UCAVs). Their potential advantage was to be inexpensive - and therefore if not expendable, then attritable.

In December 2002, the OSD program decision memorandum adjusted future funding for both Navy and Air Force UCAV development - including the procurement of several air vehicles in the FY07-09 timeframe. The program decision memorandum also directed the Navy and Air Force to initiate a joint program office to manage UCAV development, which was the number one priority of the UAV Planning Task Force. In conjunction with the Joint Program Office planning, OSD/ Program Assessment and Evaluation led a UCAV options study to determine how best to use a variety of UCAVs in the future military force.

The UCAV advanced technology demonstration entered Phase III, risk reduction and operational evaluations, which was slated to begin in late 2002 if funding was available.

In June 2003, OSD established the Joint Systems Management Office for the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems, which began operation in October 2003. This joint office is to lead a seven-year effort to develop technologies for Air Force and Navy UCAVs. Fourteen aircraft are to be delivered in time to begin a two-year operational assessment in 2007. During this assessment, DARPA is to measure how well various technologies meet the Air Force and Navy requirements, and by 2010 OSD will use DARPA's assessment to decide whether to pursue joint or separate UCAV systems.

The DARPA J-UCAS Program Office was established in the fall of 2003 and planned to release a Joint Interim Capabilities Document (JICD) in the spring of 2004. An RFP for the Operational Assessment Phase (Spiral 2) was planned for release in 2004. This phase would develop and demonstrate greater operational utility, which will support go-ahead for development (Milestone B) of the J-UCAS Objective System (J-UOS) in 2009.

By 2004 J-UCAS contractors were designing or had begun construction of two of the most advanced aircraft ever planned - with or without a cockpit. The evolution of the J-UCAS air vehicles vision illustrates both the wide spectrum of attributes offered by unmanned vehicles, and the changing nature of the services' tactical environment and strategic vision.

The development of these vehicles through their prime contractors poses interesting air vehicle challenges. Some examples include:

  • The challenge of sense and avoid technology that will enable safe operation of these vehicles in airspace used heavily by civilian transport, in times of peace as well as war.
  • The challenge of communications with a low probability of detection.
  • The challenge of high bandwidth, beyond line of site communications that will not overwhelm the existing infrastructure.
  • The challenge of unmanned aerial refueling.
  • The challenge of low observable apertures for sensors and communications.
  • The challenge of autonomic logistics and vehicle health management sensors and algorithms.
  • And the challenge of automatic target cueing and recognition.
These are but a few of the many challenges, and opportunities, on the air vehicle side of the J-UCAS program. The J-UCAS Demonstration (Spiral 1) Program combines the efforts that were previously conducted under the DARPA/Air Force Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) program and the DARPA/Navy Naval UCAV (UCAV-N) program (Spiral 0). Although these previous efforts were specifically targeted towards their service-specific needs, the Defense Department recognized the potential for significant synergy by combining the programs. The objective of the J-UCAS Spiral 1 effort is to design, develop, integrate, and demonstrate the technologies, processes, and system attributes (TPSAs) pertaining to the J-UCAS Operational System. Under Spiral 1, two air vehicles will begin flight test in 2006 and will commence catapult and arrested landing testing and evaluation at NAS Patuxent River, MD in the fall of 2006.

The primary rationale behind the J-UCAS program is not air vehicles - at least it not just about certain air vehicle designs. Though the X-45C and the X-47B will meet clear needs within the services, they need not be the end of J-UCAS platform development. After these air vehicles prove themselves operationally useful, there may be more and more types of unmanned combat air vehicles made available to the warfighter through the J-UCAS infrastructure. DARPA sought to establish a system that lowers the barriers for addition of new types of air vehicles to J-UCAS. Perhaps the need may arise for a much larger, inter-continental range vehicle. Or perhaps the services will wish to address the next big leap in anti-air defenses with an extremely small air vehicle that can pull 30 g's or more.

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