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FOAS Unmanned Vehicle Concepts

FOASMany people believe that Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) have the potential to replace manned combat aircraft, eliminating worries about aircrew losses in combat and at the same time saving huge amounts of money. It all sounds too good to be true ... and may be.

While used as target drones and aerial targets for many years, UAVs have really only come to the fore as potential combat systems around the turn of the century as advances in computer power and communications technology have made it possible (in principle) to move the pilot out of the aircraft to a position of relative safety on the ground. Removing the pilot gives some immediate design benefits in terms of reduced size for the same mission performance, but the cost savings through reduction in size alone are likely to be relatively small, given the short production runs anticipated.

Greater savings would result if UAVs can be made more effective than manned aircraft (eg by allowing them to get closer to the threat than we would be prepared to risk a pilot, permitting use of less sophisticated, and thus cheaper weapons), or if they can be operated and supported more efficiently than manned aircraft. Likewise, UAVs offer the potential for some improvement in cost-effectiveness compared to cruise missiles, since the UAV was expected to return to base to be used again, unlike the cruise missile which operators go to great lengths to ensure wont come back once fired.

UAVs are "...not simply aircraft without pilots..." The UKs experience of this type of combat UAVs was limited, and Britain watched closely some of the countries which had developed UAVs to learn from their problems. One key lesson already learned from this was that UAVs are not simply aircraft that are flown without pilots, and that considerable study and demonstration work will be required before we really understand the capabilities and limitations of UAVs, particularly as weapon-carrying combat platforms.

Given the UKs limited experience of UAVs, studies were put out to open competition with many overseas companies registering an interest either on their own or together with UK companies. Two parallel (Phase 1) studies were placed Autumn 1997 and over the course of the following six months or so the two teams (both comprising UK and US companies) carried out a shallow but broad study to identify the key opportunities for use of UAVs to meet FOAS requirements, to define a range of illustrative concepts (including their command and control infrastructure), and to establish those areas requiring study in greater depth. Both teams received contract extensions to cover a second phase of study, running from Summer 1998 to Autumn 1999, to carry out this additional work.

The two studies, which deliberately had some overlap to give the opportunity to compare their findings, explored around 30 concepts, most of them only in very broad terms. The UAVs under study fall into four key groups.

FOASRunway launched large combat UAVs could be similar in size to current manned aircraft, carrying heavy (and varied) weapon loads over long ranges as a replacement for manned bomber aircraft. Given their size and complexity they would be quite expensive, but may still offer cost-effectiveness benefits compared to manned aircraft.

Runway launched small combat UAVs would be designed to support other combat systems typically by destroying or degrading the enemys air defences prior to missions by these other systems. Freed from the constraints of air carriage and launch, these could be larger than the air-launched UAVs, allowing them to carry increased weapons loads and/or fly further.

FOASAir Launched small combat UAVs could be carried and launched either by manned combat aircraft, or by large non-penetrating transport aircraft (perhaps as an alternative payload on one that could carry cruise missiles). Whilst the need to air-launch them means that they will be smaller than could be achieved by a runway-launched system, the fact that they would be carried part way to target and dropped from altitude means that some of this size disadvantage can be recovered. Nevertheless, such systems would only be capable of carrying relatively light payloads (some form of sensor plus a few small weapons) but these could destroy some targets, or damage others sufficiently to enable other weapons in the follow-on attack to be deployed at lower risk to the delivery platform.

Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platforms are used to support weapon carrying platforms (either Manned, Unmanned, or Cruise Missiles) by helping them to find their targets quickly and establish, after targets have been attacked, whether the desired outcome has been achieved. Given their capabilities, we would probably only need limited numbers of such systems, and purchase of off-the-shelf systems by the UK was a distinct possibility. Two current concepts are based on the US Global Hawk and Dark Star programs.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 29-05-2013 18:45:42 ZULU