Combat UAV's in the pipeline
As U.S. Air Force officers long feared, a foreign country has now shown a prototype of a combat UAV (or UCAV, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle). A Russian firm recently displayed its MiG Skat ("Skate") which looks very similar to the U.S. X-45A.This is just the beginning in the development of this new weapon system. It gives the Navy the ability to project sea power well ashore in unmanned controlled flight by a vehicle that makes a two way trip. While getting the software right on the night landings on a carrier will be a challenge, doing it by manned flight is also a challenge that has been won and eventually the computers will be able to do it better.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force have invested over a billion dollars, so far, in developing combat UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that can operate from airfields and aircraft carriers, and replace some of the manned aircraft currently in service. Final design and construction of the full size X45C combat UAV was cancelled last year, when the air force pulled out of the project. The X-45C was supposed to have its first flight this year. The navy is now taking over the project, while the air force reconsiders its options.
The smaller X45A spent two years doing flight tests and serving as a test bed for the flight control software. The X45A was intended just for development. The navy is developing carrier landing software alone. This will be one of the most technically difficult aspects of the project. Landing on a carrier is very difficult, especially at night and in bad weather. Carrier landing software has already been tested, but in manned aircraft, with pilots ready to take over at any moment. So far, these tests have been successful, but the acid test will be a UCAV actually landing on a carrier, without a human on board as a backup.
The X45A had passed tests for formation flying, and dropping a JDAM (actually the new 250 pound SDB version). The X45C was to carry eight SDB (small diameter bombs), or up to 4500 pounds of other JDAMs. The X45C was to, and may still, undergo several years of development before entering service. The X-45C was designed to weigh 19 tons, have a 2.2 ton payload and be 39 feet long (with a 49 foot wingspan.) The X-45A is 27 feet long, has a wingspan of 34 feet and has a payload of 1.2 tons. The X-45C wiould be able to hit targets 2,300 kilometers away and be used for bombing and reconnaissance missions. Each X-45C would probably cost about $30, depending on how extensive, and expensive, its electronic equipment will be.
The Russian knockoff is still early in the development phase. It could just be vapor ware at this stage. But, it should also be an incentive to spur US development.