| WASHINGTON – Inside a command center, an Air Force technician studies a radar screen as the unmanned fighter he is controlling flies into air space considered too dangerous for American pilots.
Using data from the aircraft’s sensors, bounced by satellite to the command center, the controller detects three concealed surface-to-air missile sites. With the flick of a switch, the controller fires the fighter’s “smart” weapons to destroy the targets.
Such a scenario is decades away, but unmanned missions are very much on the minds of current Air Force commanders. And the plane they have in mind is the joint strike fighter being developed by rival teams led by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
The two companies are competing to produce the fighter, which would replace the Marines’ AV-8B Harrier, the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet and the Air Force’s Fort Worth-made F-16.
The plane is being developed as a manned strike fighter. But Gen. Ronald Fogleman, Air Force chief of staff, told a recent symposium in Las Vegas that improvements in sensor and satellite technologies could allow later versions to fly without pilots.
Fogleman said that such a plane might be possible around 2025. But so far, no one at the Pentagon has suggested budgeting funds for an unmanned version of the joint strike fighter. David Wheaton, the fighter’s program director at Lockheed Martin, said his team is focused solely on developing two prototype demonstrators. He said Lockheed won’t even consider a pilotless version of the plane unless the Pentagon makes room in its budget.
Liesl Heeter, a defense budget analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, said it is unlikely the Air Force will budget money for such an aircraft anytime soon. The Pentagon currently has three fighter planes under development: – The joint strike fighter. – The F-22 Raptor, a next-generation Air Force stealth fighter. – The F/A-18E/F Hornet, a Navy attack jet.
Until Congress approves money for those planes and they are in production, it’s unlikely the military would risk the political fallout of suggesting development of an unmanned version, Heeter said. And there are ethical implications of fielding an unmanned combat plane.
“I think there are some in the Air Force who may even have objections to it,” Heeter said. “But I would also think Congress may have a problem with a system that can fire weapons without a person being there. I don’t think that debate will be easy or quiet. ”
Armand Chaput heads a team at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth that has done preliminary studies on what the company calls an uninhabited combat air vehicle. Such a plane would be highly maneuverable, less expensive than manned aircraft and capable of delivering high-tech weapons in even the most dangerous conditions. Chaput says pilotless aircraft could complement manned fighters.
Because they would use on-ground simulators, “pilots” of the uninhabited planes could be trained more easily and cheaply, Chaput said. Moreover, the weight of such a plane could be reduced about 15 percent because it would not carry a pilot. The plane therefore could be maneuvered at angles and speeds that would cause a pilot to black out.
Chaput said Lockheed Martin believes that the Pentagon should consider the idea for preliminary testing. “Not in production sense, but in an experimental sense,” he said. “We should develop the concept and try it out in simulated exercises. We believe that is a very good first step. ”
Chaput said there is much to be learned about how such aircraft would operate alongside manned fighters and how they would communicate. He suggested an experiment that would put current technology for remote control of aircraft aboard an F-16.
“What we have the capability of doing now is to take technologies developed primarily for manned aircraft that increase the level of automation, reduce workload and make pilots more efficient,” he said.
Those systems could be integrated with new technologies to transmit data to an uninhabited vehicle. The industry, however, is years away from fielding an unmanned aircraft that could take on manned fighters in aerial combat, he said.
“In the future, I don’t think there will be any limits on what uninhabited vehicles can do,” he said. “But what’s probably not possible with today’s technology is air-to-air engagement, a dogfight. That would require the development of new technology. ”
Still, some Air Force officials see an unmanned version of the joint strike fighter as the beginning of a new era in combat aircraft.
“It will happen,” said one Air Force officer who did not want to be identified. “It may be 25 years away from going into service, but there are enough people talking about it around here that I would guess it is less than five years away from finding a home in the budget.
Author: Michael D. Towle; Star-Telegram Writer – Washington Bureau
Copyright 1997 Star-Telegram, Inc.