Who Killed the Killer Drone - and Why?


In November, with great fanfare, the U.S. Navy and Air Force took over Darpa's biggest, most promising killer drone program, Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems, or J-UCAS. The idea was to develop a single family of weaponized drones operating from land and from carrier decks, backing up and ultimately replacing manned fighter jets. According to Dr. Michael S. Francis, J-UCAS Director, the program promised "a transformational shift in the operational application of airpower in the 21st century combat environment."
X-47Pegasus_4.jpgTwo months later, the 2007 defense budget split the program into separate Air Force and Navy programs. J-UCAS was dead. "We start joint, but we never carry it across the goal line for some reason," Rear Adm. Timothy Heely told Aviation Week after the decision was announced.
I'm on the UAV beat for National Defense. In recent weeks I've spoken to many Air Force and Navy UAV program managers and operators -- and none have given me a straight answer on why J-UCAS went extinct.
Janes has an idea: The Air Force and Navy drifted further and further apart on what their unmanned combat planes (the X-45 and X-47, respectively) should do. The gap got so wide, the one-size-fits-all approach stopped making sense.

[The] USAF decided that its present conception no longer met that service's long-term needs. USAF ambitions are for a long-range strike aircraft embracing stealth, endurance, ISR [or Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and attack capabilities, and, while the projected [J-UCAS vehicle] clearly offered the first and last of these, there was seen to be a mismatch between the aircraft's range/endurance and its modest 4,500 lb weapon load.

Janes is on to something. A few weeks ago, somebody leaked Air Force plans to fold its half of the former J-UCAS program into its Long-Range Strike study, which is looking at ways to replace B-1s, B-2s and B-52s. Air Force Magazine explains:
[Long-Range Strike] would replace the Joint Unmanned Combat Aircraft System--slated for termination--with a larger, faster unmanned bomber. The aircraft would have to cover very long distances and be able to loiter in the target area with a good-sized bomb load.

Note that "good-sized bomb load" part. Last week, Navy Capt. Steven Wright told me that the Navy wanted J-UCAS not for strategic bombing, but initially for penetrating ISR and, later, for close air support -- both missions that require smallish, fast, medium-range aircraft like today's manned F/A-18s.
Air Force again:
The qualities the Air Force wanted in a next-generation strike aircraft were trending toward a larger and larger platform, equipped with a sizable bomb load and able to loiter in enemy territory for long periods, with periodic refuelings from a tanker. The size of the objective Air Force version of J-UCAS had been upped several times, and likely would have been enlarged again.

And that meant parting ways with the Navy and its smaller, tactical armed drone.
Defense Tech sources have another theory: that the Air Force killed its combat drone, Boeing's X-45, to keep it from competing with its manned fighter jet of the future, the Joint Strike Fighter.
The reason that was given (strictly off the record) [by Air Force officials] was that we were expected to be simply too good in key areas and that we would have caused massive disruption to the efforts to "keep JSF sold." If we had flown and things like survivability had been evenly assessed on a small scale and Congress had gotten ahold of the data, JSF would have been in serious trouble.

And what was this shocking data?
Say the mission is to take out a SAM [surface-to-air missile] site using a Small Diameter Bomb. That SDB has the same standoff launch max range regardless of the platform releasing it. Given that the state of the art for Low Observable (LO) design and material is much the same between the qualified aircraft designers in the U.S., how LO your system is largely a function of shape and cross section. Compare the shapes and profiles of the F-35 [JSF] and the X-45C. Who do you think is going to have the higher probably of being killed? Of course that "kill" in the JSF case means body bags and in the case of a X-45C, just the lost aircraft and far fewer of them.

The Navy's Capt. Wright says that both the X-45 and X-47 J-UCAS demonstrators will continue development under the Navy UCAS program. Carrier trials are expected in 2011. Meanwhile, the Air Force will start from scratch or piggyback its UCAS/Long-Range Strike vehicle on an existing classified platform, perhaps the one mentioned by David Hambling here a few weeks back.
For more, check out Noah's January post on how the killer drone program got bumped off.
-- David Axe
UPDATE 5:40 PM: Not everyone in the Defense Department is sold on the idea of turning J-UCAS into a strike plane -- or on the idea of the new aircract, period. As Inside Defense notes, "Internal squabbling between two camps within the Pentagon is delaying the formal start of a study aimed at helping the Air Force shape its effort to field a new long-range bomber."
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