Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs),
sometimes referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles are remotely piloted or self-piloted aircraft that can serve in a variety of roles such as target
drones, upper atmosphere experiments, reconnaissance & air "occupation" (Uninhabited Reconnaissance Aerial Vehicle or URAV), and even combat/attack
(Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicle or UCAV).
(Special thanks to Intelgurl for turning me on to ATS, for her encouragement that I do this, as well as her assistance in formating,
terminologies, fact gathering and basic expertise and knowledge in the field.)
There are over 60 various UAV systems presently deployed or under full-scale development across the globe.
This ATS report will focus on US
operational UCAV's, their history, their present state of technology and what the future may hold.
Historical UCAVs: Systems & Technology
Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles have been used in a reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering role since the 1950s and UAV's acting as target drones have
been around for longer than that.
It was therefore inevitiable that UAVs, which were first primarily used for reconnaissance, would also migrate towards active combat missions when the
The issues that kept UCAV's from being fielded were due to the simple fact that it was much easier to fly over an "area of interest" and take
pictures than to shoot at or otherwise place ordinance on specific targets.
Historically, the UCAV concept has suffered from "command and control" issues which in turn affect policy issues; the most glaring technical issue
was the vulnerability of the communication link to jamming and even hijacking by means of spoofing, and the USAF's need to hit specific targets and
not get caught up in the diplomatic quagmire of collateral damage (accidental killing of civilians) or friendly fire incidents, (the killing of
The first such known attempt by the US to field a UCAV was the HAVE LEMON project which began in 1971.
Based on the Ryan Firebee which was originally used as a target drone.
HAVE LEMON was initially successful using a variety of strike weapons including Maverick TV guided missiles, but due to DoD concerns over the
vulnerability of the control signal being hijacked or jammed the HAVE LEMON project was scrapped in 1979 with approximately 60 HAVE LEMON Firebees
being retired or put into storage.
Post HAVE LEMON Projects: 1979-2001
Over the next two decades, as more reliable communications links were developed, automated systems came into much wider use, and the military as well
as policy makers became much more comfortable with such new technologies.
These advances in new technology have allowed UCAV missions to be conducted by an operator in a supervisory role in a ground vehicle, Naval ship or
other aircraft, but the UCAV would be able to continue it's mission autonomously if communications were cut.
According to DoD strategy, the goal for UCAV's was for them to carry out the role of "air occupation", which is described in DoD documents as using
an unpiloted aircraft to fly continuous patrols over hostile territory, identifying enemy activities and targeting them in the URAV role and then
following up with attacks in the UCAV role.
Lockheed-Martin's Intermediate UCAV Solutions:
One of Lockheed Martin's UCAV solutions involved using F-16's by refitting them with larger wings which would provide for additional fuel giving an
8 hour loiter time over the area of interest, as well as allow for 6 or more air-to-surface weapons on the wing rails.
Another Lockheed UCAV concept was a stealthy diamond shaped, tailess, flying wing with it's 2 weapons bays on either side of the centerline located
turbofan. This concept had 3 variants: one with an afterburning engine for maximum performance; one with a non-afterburning thrust-vectoring engine
for better maneuverability; and one with a conventional non-afterburning engine for low cost and longer loiter time.
None of these concepts were known to be chosen by the DoD.
Current UCAVs: In Production & Development
General Atomics RQ-1A Predator
The Predator drone was initially designed to gather intelligence on enemy forces without putting U.S. pilots at risk, but now it has found a role as
an offensive weapon.
Predators have been used for reconnaissance (URAV) since 1995 with a range of about 460 miles and a loiter time of up to 24 hours over an area of
interest, all the while broadcasting via secure link real-time video to controllers on the ground.
In February 2001, just months before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, Predators were first equipped with Hellfire anti-tank
missiles. Since that time the drones have been used against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan, including a February 4 2002 strike that was
believed to have killed a number of senior al Qaeda leaders in Zawar Kili.
In October 2001, before U.S. troops entered Afghanistan, a Predator was used to try to protect Afghan opposition leader Abdul Haq before he was
captured by the Taliban. The drone fired several missiles at Taliban forces but was unable to drive them off.
The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, has said the Predator is most valued because "it's persistent" and can stay "over
the target area for long periods of time and it can move between targets" without being detected.
Current technology onboard the Predator enables it to strike moving targets with it's Hellfire missiles, and even sniff out air defense radar, target
and apply it's ordinance.
Born from lessons learned in the development of Boeing's "Bird of Prey" tailess technology demonstrator, the X-45 UCAV is a stealthy, formidable
unmanned attack platform.
In April 1999, DARPA and the USAF placed a contract with Boeing which called for the design, manufacture and flight testing of two demonstrator
UCAV's. The X-45 UCAV is a development of the Boeing Phantom Works of Seattle, Washington. The first X-45A demonstrator took to flight in May 2002
and the second X-45 in November 2002.
The X-45A UCAV is just a demonstrator and does not have the full compliment of attack system avionics. The design includes the incorporation of
stealth technology, two fully functional weapon bays, provision for the full sensor suite and aerial refuelling capability. In April 2003, DARPA
requested that Boeing modify the X-45B design to give it longer range, greater payload capacity and an extended loiter time over the area of
The X-45's system operation is configured to always incorporate human assets in the decision making process, in both the planning and in the
execution of missions, target detection/identification, real time targeting, weapon selection and authorization, weapons delivery and post-attack
damage assessment. The high level of automation allows one operator in the mission control station to control up to four air vehicles.
The X-45 UCAV is intended to have experimental capability by 2008 and enter service after 2010.
Boeing X-46 UCAV-N:
Currently in competition with the Northrop Grumman X-47 Pegasus, the Boeing X-46 UCAV-N is the maritime version of the X-45, which is designed for
Naval operations, specifically operations in the demanding aircraft-carrier environment.
This naval UCAV system requires 50 percent less space than manned aircraft and the ability to operate with minimal Command & Control from a ship-based
Current schematics for the Boeing X-46 UCAV-N show an aircraft approximately 34 feet long, with a 44 foot wingspan, and a height of 7 feet.
Two large internal bays would allow the stealthy aircraft to carry up to 4000 pounds of munitions up to 650 nautical miles for SEAD or strike
missions. Or, equipped with advanced sensors only, the vehicle could perform surveillance missions for up to 12 hours.
With the successful completion of the demonstrator system phase of the program, the DoD could begin engineering and manufacturing development of the
UCAV-N in the FY 2007 time frame.
Northrop Grumman X-47 UCAV-N
Industry insiders say that the X-47 Pegasus is in the forefront of the competition for the DoD's UCAV-N. Northrop Grumman was awarded a UCAV-N
risk-reduction contract in May, as was Boeing, and is awaiting release of a request for proposals to build the full-scale demonstrator. This has been
delayed while DARPA and the US Navy debate whether to award one contract or two, to maintain competition for the UCAV-N development program scheduled
to begin in 2007.
A Northrop promotional video for the Pegasus can be viewed on this LINK
, and the
X-47's first flight video can be found HERE
The Future belongs to UCAV's:
DARPA's Vision for the Future:
DARPA's concept of future air attack envisions a mix of manned and unmanned attack aircraft on the same mission and interacting within the same
operational airspace - both preprogrammed artificial intelligence and remote command and control come into play with this concept. The remote command
and control will have the ability to be switched from a ground-based C&C unit issuing instructions to the UCAV, to the pilot(s) in the manned aircraft
These UCAV concepts will involve air-to-ground as well as air-to-air capabilities. The manned aircraft will be far more survivable since their
primary function would be to stand off and supervise a "swarmed" attack by the UCAVs and in the case of an air-to-air battles the UCAVs could also
offer interference as well as engage the enemy aircraft outright.
The Future of UCAV's: Lockheed Future Strike Concept
Although Lockheed does not have any "known" UCAV concepts being considered in current competitions they do have an eye for the future; Lockheed
currently has ongoing UCAV R&D under the project names "Sabre Warrior" and "Sure Strike". Very little information is available to the general
public on these programs, but here is a link to 2 Lockheed promotional videos on the
"Sabre Warrior" and "Sure Strike
The Future of UCAV's: Following the Money Trail
So you're probably reading all of this and thinking to yourself, "This is cool and all but so many programs are cancelled, is this UCAV thing really
going to happen?"
If you follow the money that's being invested by the DoD then you will know the answer to that question is a resounding "Yes!".
The UCAV programs fall under an Air Force and DARPA funded program called "System Development and Demonstration (SDD) 0604731F UCAV, Project # 58".
This program contains the R&D and deployment of 14 various UCAV systems, the Boeing X-45 and Northrop-Grumman X-47 being only 2 of these 14. It is
quite apparent that there are a number of secret UCAV projects under this development program.
Information is obviously limited and vague, however the program is currently at a "Spiral 2" development stage which is the final stage before
Here are some numbers on the program just to demonstrate the magnitude with which the DoD is developing and deploying.
Last year (2003) DARPA & the USAF spent $39,127,000 on this program;
This year, (2004) DoD will spend $175,944,000.
In FY 2005 $423,447,000 has been allocated for UCAV projects...
and in FY 2006 $468,356,000 has been allocated.
These exponentially increasing funds are indicative that the USAF is very dedicated to the increasing use of UCAV's in wartime situations.
UCAV's: Final Thoughts
In the near future there will still be a place for manned aerial fighter/attack craft, however the need for having as many manned aircraft may dwindle
as guidance, command/control and artificial intelligence sciences are further developed for both ground attack and air to air engagements.
This is by no means a comprehensive work as there are future concepts and more obscure programs that were not examined here. However, there is
hopefully adequate information here to start off a good discussion.
(Again, many thanks to Natalie, aka Intelgurl for her help on this project.)
"UCAV Origins", Vectorsite.com, In the Public Domain
"UAV's: Background and Issues for Congress", Congressional Research Service, 2003
"Naval Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV-N)", UCAV-N Transitioned to J-UCAS Program
(October 2003), DARPA
"The Boeing X-46", Invisible Defenders.Org
"X-45 UCAV UNMANNED COMBAT AIR VEHICLE", Air Force Technology.Com
"(SDD) 0604731F Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) Project #5058", DoD
Budget Activity Sheet - System Development and Demonstration
"X-45 UCAV unmanned combat aircraft", Above Top Secret; Quoted post by
"UCAV THE NEXT GENERATION AIR-SUPERIORITY FIGHTER?", Major William K. Lewis, Air
University, Maxwell Aif Force Base, Montgomey, Alabama
[Edited on 29-3-2004 by SkepticOverlord]