Once unmanned aircraft have mastered midair refueling — a task the Navy hasn’t attempted yet — a new set of capabilities will sit in the hangar.
“Pound for pound, you’re going to get a longer range and more payload on an [unmanned aerial vehicle] compared to a command aircraft, and that’s going to be important in the years ahead,” said Nate Hughes, director of military analysis for Stratfor, a global intelligence company. “These days, the human in the cockpit is the limiting factor.”
The bulk of unmanned and autonomous flights will be for surveillance, reconnaissance and tanking purposes — missions that can last for several monotonous hours, said Norman Friedman, author of “Unmanned Combat Air Systems: A New Kind of Carrier Aviation.”
“It’s a cruise missile you can retrieve. If you think of it that way, you only fly it when you need it. You cut down on your gas, your numbers, your manning and your spares,” he said.
Handsfree carrier landing
Autonomous flight means that costs associated with training flights, including fuel, maintenance, logistics and payroll, will be reduced. By Friedman’s estimates, it could create as much as 66 percent in aviation-related savings, making carriers a more fiscally attractive ship.
The Navy’s goal is to seamlessly integrate unmanned systems into the fleet,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, X-47B program manager, in a July teleconference.
The air force plans to form a new squadron of medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs consisting of Elbit’s Hermes 900 and IAI’s Heron 1 to enhance its drone capabilities.
The Israeli air force bought three Hermes 900s for evaluation in May 2010 and is waiting for final approval from the General Staff of the Israeli armed forces to purchase new platforms under a five-year procurement plan currently being finalized.
The air force has deployed a special UAV unit along Israel’s porous 150-mile border with Sinai north of the Gaza Strip.
The propeller-driven Harop, based on the earlier Harp craft, was designed to suppress radar systems linked to surface-to-air missile systems or similar high-value targets.
It “can fly to a designated loitering position where it searches for electromagnetic signals from surface-to-air missile batteries and then dives in to destroy them,” Katz reported.
Such high-risk missions have in the past largely been carried out by manned “Wild Weasel” F-4 or F-16 aircraft.
“Loitering weapons systems is considered a highly classified topic in Israel, which is believed to have developed a number of systems over the years capable of loitering over battlefields and engaging static and mobile targets,” Katz wrote.