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Thursday, August 24, 2006

F-35 UCAV in the (Skunk) Works

Lockheed has revealed that they have been studying unmanned derivatives of the F-35 Lightning II in yet another in a steady stream of news releases as it mounts a PR campaign to establish itself in the unmanned systems market. Concepts studied by Lockheed's Skunk Works include both optionally piloted and dedicated unmanned versions.

Frank Mauro, deputy director unmanned aeronautical systems has stated that there have been behind the scenes discussion on unmaned versions of the F-35 for 2-3 years. Both an optionally piloted and dedicated unmanned Lightning II have been thoroughly conceptualized and designed, but getting the 3 manned versions of the F-35 flying before pursuing the idea any further.

It has been discussed that a fuel tank could replace the coc­kpit thus extending range, however the cost of the propulsion, avionics and most of the sensor systems should not change from a manned to an unmanned system according to Mr Mauro.

Operationally Lockheed has developed a swarming concept in which four unmanned Lightning II's would be controlled by two manned F-35's, or F-22's, sharing sensor information via an airborne datalink.
This would allow the sensors to be removed from the unmanned F-35s, which would be used as weapon carriers, reducing cost to about 72% that of the manned aircraft 30-35% of the cost is in the sensors.

Posted by Natalie @ 11:36 PM

Read or Post a Comment

is an aircraft without it's own sensors as a backup really a good idea? i've read that hezbollah reputedly managed to jam the current israeli/us systems so what if they managed to jam the data links between the manned and unmanned ucav's these aircraft would then be useless?

Posted by Anonymous solidshot @ Friday, August 25, 2006 5:36:00 AM #

Solidshot, that's a good question.
Normally aircraft as sophisticated as this would have a decent sensor suite enabling an autonomous standard operating procedure. But this is'n't the case. It's certainly worth more digging ...

Posted by Blogger Natalie @ Friday, August 25, 2006 9:08:00 PM #

According to the Australian MOD announcement on their JSF teaming intentions, the F-35A has roughly the same radius as the F-35C, or 650-700nm.

In and out.

The planned A-45 was to have a radius of 1,100nm with 2hr loiter at the far end.

EVEN IF the unmanned variant can match this with the added fuel, there is no casepoint for either it or it's manned leashholder because a 1,000nm journey for a subsonic asset is going to put the pilot of a subsonic airframe in the air for upwards of 12-15hrs. They did a similar run with navair going up north to Kabul in the first days of OEF and '10 hours later' one F-14 pilot commented that making the recovery tanker (an S-3 well forward over Pak airspace and virtually unguarded) and coming aboard was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do, /even though/ they had extra aircrew running the mission planning cells so he could go instantly into no-go crewrest.

Assuming you can survivably push a tanker forward to let him match his robotic dogs, upping the ante even further will destroy the operational capabilities of a fighter wing, either land or sea based.

It should also be stated that the original LM 'announcement' specifically stated the UCAVs were to be _external_ bombtrucks.

Which effectively means that they have no Stealth Advantage.

There are other operational concerns here. The most basic formation is the section or element. But the USAF model for all tactical activities is the flight or division.

If you continue this tradition, you are now looking at flights of four in which two are manned which destroys your cost savings. Or losing the ability to back the pilot up with an intuitive tactical execution support system.

I am all for using individual UCAVs as D1 cruise missiles with landing gear. I also heartily believe they should be flown individually as fully sensorized mission platforms looking down on every mudhut, dirt track and oil well in a given BOB country. Because that is how you get 'corporate memory' as a total mosaic awareness of the battlespace. And particularly the 1 in a 1,000 targets which is actually a bad guy hidden among the civillian sheep of COIN warfare.

But if you blind them, they cannot contribute to that big picture. And if they are unmanned, then hanging out a single pilot without a backup shooter able to help him execute a 4 dimensional battle plan (remember, the F-35 is not all-round LO, nor is it able to supercruise high step away from a fight it cannot win, especially at long-radii)is not wise.

That said, there is no real danger inherent to 'jamming the network'.

First, because anything which emits can itself be backtraced and attacked.

And second because the likes of Hezbollah having the ability to point a jamming signal to a stealth receiver aircraft listening into a highly directional, ultra high speed, 'X-band modem' (the APG-77 has already been tested in this role with 2.4 megabyte/second transmission rates) is laughable.

And without the ability to focus a lot of energy at a specific point of airspace, overriding the threat signal is going to be like putting a flashlight up against a bank of klieg lamps at a football stadium.

A more real concern however is that of the UCAVs themselves being able to talk back. Because without the AESA radar, they can neither image nor send 21MB SAR maps (in less than 3 seconds) to the receiver for subsequent handoff to higher command elements.

The reality then is this: Lockheed Martin has /finally/ seen the writing on the wall inherent to initial 'optimistic lies' about the F-35's costs coming back to haunt them. It is not entirely their fault of course, the inherent difficulty of developing THREE aircraft on one budget, one of them STOVL, resulting in the inevitable weight crisis that delayed passing PDR/CDR. And when added to Iraq's budgetary crisis have resulted in ever fewer U.S. inventory buys and ever more rightwards delay of game on schedule.

Regardless of cause or motive however, they are not to the point where the final PAUC is so high that even foreign export cannot make up the difference and clients are slinking away from the program in a slow moving edge-to-the-door surge which will likely become a full blown stampede as soon as there is truly a cheap-as-promised alternative.

Inherent to Euro UCAV.

Since LM are horribly over vested in both the F-22 and the F-35 technology base ('buying in' as a felony exercise in antideficiency act violations) they cannot really remorph to yet a third major configuration as with their abortive Saber Warrior.

And so they are trying to hard sell a 'looks like a duck' desperation save which can now no longer be covered up on the basis of all three services needing a baseline fighter. Because all three services are dropping their basic models to less than half the initial 3,000 promised.

As such, promising 'even more, as less' from an airframe which _never will be_ the low cost, long loiter, sensors-over-absolute-performance system metric that a proper UCAV **bomber** should be is ludicrous.

Because we don't need a '3%' of $112,000,000.00 airframe savings (108 million). We don't even need a '72%' one (80 million). We need an airframe which can effectively replace ALL existing models with _just one_ (common basing mode) in a total inventory buy of under 1,500 airframes and possibly less then 1,000.

At a cost of 25-30 million dollars each.

This, the F-35-as-UCAV will NEVER do. Because it was never going to even when it was initially sold to Congress as exactly that. A 'fighter' with a rough spread of costs 28-38 million dollars.


Posted by Anonymous Anonymous @ Thursday, August 31, 2006 10:10:00 AM #

Great Blog Natile. I also like your great posts on ATS, they are really informative. Thank for the little helpful things you share. I look forward to your next post.

Tim (ghost)

Posted by Anonymous Tim @ Friday, September 08, 2006 5:58:00 AM #
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