03 August 2016

Carrier Based Fighter Drones To Enter Service In About Eight Years

The U.S. Navy is now taking bids for the MQ-25A, a carrier based artificially intelligent unmanned fighter aircraft for which the X-47 was a proof of concept that developed all of the necessary core technologies.  The current target date for the production version of the drone (which will be similar but different in size than the prototype X-47) is roughly 2024, about eight years from now. Essentially all of the necessary technology was developed with the X-47 including most importantly, a software package that has been tested in real life and can relatively easily be adapted to a new airframe.

The MQ-25A would have far more impressive capabilities comparable to advanced fighter aircraft, than existing armed drones like the MQ-9.  Existing drones are by comparison slow, have a shorter range, aren't designed from the ground up to be launched from aircraft carriers like fighter aircraft, and carry less and less potent ordinance.

The naval aviation "fighter mafia" of senior naval officers with a background as fighter pilots has resisted the development, but a couple of factors have brought push to shove:

* The manned F-18 carrier based jet fighter and its successor in an advanced stage of development, the F-35C, have an operational range of about 480 miles.  The MQ-25A drone fighter would have a range of about 1,500 miles and not put any pilots in harms way, allowing aircraft carriers to destroy enemy warships and land based missile batteries that could threaten it from beyond the range of advanced anti-ship missiles.  The MQ-25A could also take on more risky missions because no pilot's life would be at risk.

To vastly oversimplify, removing the cockpit from a fighter aircraft buys 1,000 miles more worth of fuel.

* Alternatively, an ability to stay in the air longer could be used to provide airpower support for ground troops by having one or two of them in the air at all times as a resource for forward observers who call down missile strikes on ground targets.

* The drone would also provide more opportunity than cruise missiles do to have either the drone's artificial intelligence, or if radio signals are not jammed, a remote operator at the carrier or in headquarters, a better opportunity to evaluate a target to confirm that it is appropriate, based upon the drone's local sensors before actually destroying it.

* While advocates for the program have downplayed the capability, a fighter drone can out maneuver manned jet fighters, because they aren't limited by the G-forces that a human pilot can withstand, and it can also, when operating with artificial intelligence rather than on remote control, outperform human operators in the time it needs to evaluate the situation in a dogfight and choose an optimum short term tactical plan based upon that data than a human pilot because it has a higher reaction time. This has recently been demonstrated in flight simulator based tests akin to the computer-chess master contests of earlier years.

* One would assume at first blush that the aircraft carrier crew requirement of about 20 ground/carrier based crew per fighter aircraft would be largely unchanged for a drone, since only the pilot's job would be transferred from a on board crew members to a remote operator at a base or to onboard computers.

But, there may be room for more economies than that with drones.  This is because manned fighter aircraft needs to maintain a fairly high level of peacetime training operations to keep fighter pilots in top form, while drone operators could largely do so via virtual simulations. This would greatly reduce wear and tear on the moving parts in the MQ-25A over time relative to an F-18 or F-35.

* The price of new F-35Cs is significantly more than $100 million each.  It is anticipated that a new MQ-25A would be less expensive.  An MQ-25A would probably cost no more than a new F-18, and maybe significantly less. So, by reducing the number of F-35Cs to be procured and replacing much of this planned buy with MQ-25As,  a great deal of money could be saved.

* The final factor urging the fighter mafia forward on implementing this current technology revolution in naval aviation is that other countries like China and Iran and Russia are all hot on the trail of building comparable fighter drones, and the U.S. fears that it could face a real vulnerability if it doesn't implement this technology first.

Implications Beyond Naval Aircraft

Finally, the MQ-25A, with minimal and optional modifications to make it lighter and simpler by removing features needed only on aircraft carriers, is easily replicated as a successor to many of the missions of the Air Force's ground airstrip based F-35A.  This could likewise dramatically reduce the number of very expensive F-35 aircraft that the U.S. needs to buy while maintaining or improving the military value of the airframes that are purchased.

In short, a military future in which a substantial share of the work done today by fighter aircraft is done by X-47 like drones could be less than twenty years away.

Russian plans for a next generation fighter aircraft beyond the current one already contemplate a primary role for manned fighter aircraft as a shepherd for armed fighter drones as much as as a combatant in its own right.  The next generation of manned fighter aircraft after the F-22 and F-35 in the U.S. will surely use the same approach.

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