The U.S. Navy is finally thinking about how to use aerial drones to shoot down other airplanes—making it one of the first air arms to plan a dogfighting role for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
But in the beginning, the dogfighting drones will most likely need the help of a human fighter pilot in a nearby manned plane.
Dave Majumdar broke the news in mid-December on the blog of the U.S. Naval Institute. The Navy’s new Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike drone, currently in the conceptual phase, will be the size of an F-14 Tomcat—that is, 35 to 40 tons fully loaded—and able to carry AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, Majumdar reported.
But the drone will probably not be able to spot enemy jets, maneuver into a firing position and shoot down the bad guys all on its own. Those skills are still beyond the reach of near-term sensors and computer algorithms.
Instead, the robot will be a wingman, hauling extra air-to-air missiles to boost the firepower of friendly manned fighters such as the F/A-18 Hornet and the stealthy F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. The unmanned wingman could help make up for American jets’ relatively small missile loads—a critical weakness.
“The UCLASS might be useful as a flying missile magazine,” Majumdar wrote, citing recent comments by Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy’s director of air warfare.
The idea would be for a human pilot in a Hornet or JSF—the “decision-maker,” according to Manazir—to lead the drone into enemy territory and designate targets with his or her own radar or other sensors, relaying that info to the robot via a secure data-link.
The jet-powered drone, which is meant to have some ability to evade enemy sensors, might stick close to the manned jet or hang back a bit, ready to lob AMRAAMs on command.
The dogfighting drone, scheduled to enter service around 2020, will not be the first robot to try to engage in aerial combat. In 2002, the Air Force fitted short-range Stinger air-to-air missiles to Predator prop-driven drones in order to help protect the slow-flying robots from Iraqi jet fighters. A Predator patrolling over southern Iraq got into a tangle with an Iraqi MiG-25 … and was quickly shot down.
The Predator’s destruction hastened the Air Force’s plan to develop radar-evading drones able to avoid enemy defenders rather than defeat them in a straight-up fight. That initiative resulted in the secretive RQ-170 and RQ-180 spy drones. The Navy, by contrast, has long been less enamored of stealth and wants its new robots to be able to fight—and win.
Even if they need help.
When the UCLASS robot flies its first air-to-air mission, it will begin to fulfill one Israeli general’s prophesy regarding the eventual demise of the manned warplane. “In the future, part of the process of replacing jet fighters with UAVs will be the ability to start dogfights between drones,” retired Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu, former head of the Israeli air force, said in November.