Saturday, January 21, 2006

U.S. Losing Edge on UAVs?

Recent developments suggest other nations might be catching up to the U.S. military in UAV technology.

Last week, reports surfaced that the Dept of Defense will terminate the J-UCAS program (parent of the X-45) as part of a Quadrennial Defense Review plan to modernize the USAF bomber fleet. While the Air Force and Navy will continue to develop their own independent unmanned aircraft programs, this move could be a death blow to a program showing enormous promise. The new bomber could incorporate some of the J-UCAS technology, and officials have not ruled out the possibility of building an unmanned bomber.

Meanwhile, the British just unveiled a stealth drone of their own. Dubbed the "Corax," the unmanned aircraft features a tailess, stealthly airframe and will be used as a platform to develop new command and control systems.

At the same time, the South Koreans have announced plans to develop sophisticated military robots, including "eight-legged autonomous combat vehicles."

So while other militaries forge ahead with unmanned weapons systems, the U.S. cuts its most advanced unclassified UAV program, even though the DOD recently said cancelling the program would erode its unmanned aircraft advantage. Fortunately, South Korea and the UK are friendly nations, but how long will it be until a rival demonstrates the willingness to challenge American air superiority with unmanned fighters of their own? That might be the only developlment likely to cause unmanned systems to replace fighter pilots in their air-to-air combat role.

Latest News: The Air Force Times is reporting that officials are planning a new career field for UAV operators, entirely distinct from traditional aircraft pilots. So instead of forcing traditional pilots to non-voluntarily retrain into UAV operators, this move aims to train pilots to specialize in unmanned systems from the get-go. Perhaps a new breed of leadership grown from the ranks of these UAV specialists will not retain the nostalgic attachment to the 'feel and experience' of traditional aviation, and will enable this technology to progress without prejudice.

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