How to Turn a Drone into a Dogfighter

02.07.09

Categorie: Air, David Axe, Reality Check, Robots |

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by DAVID AXE

“There are those that see [F-35] JSF as the last manned fighter,” U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chair, said in May. “I’m one that’s inclined to believe that.”

U.S. Predators, Reapers and other drones have already proved highly capable as surveillance and attack aircraft. But can a drone take over a manned fighter’s air-to-air combat role?

Predators and Reapers can carry Stinger heat-seeking, air-to-air missiles. In 2002, A Predator fired a Stinger at an Iraqi MiG-25, seconds before the MiG-25 blew the Predator out of the air. The Stinger, which is autonomous after launch, missed. (See video.)

A true drone fighter will need a multi-mode radar and radar-guided missiles. That’s not so hard. The hard parts are:

* Boosting drone performance — speed and altitude — to “throw” an air-to-air missile with adequate energy to achieve lethal range and speed. The new Predator C and X-47 drones represent a big step towards this performance, but supersonic versions would be better.

* Situational awareness. Air-to-air combat is largely visual, and most drones still have poor visual situational awareness. They view the world through the narrow cone of an electro-optical or infrared sensor, that’s often too narrow for a wide stare — which is exactly what you need to spot an enemy fighter. Development of wide-stare sensors is prerequisite to turning drones into air-to-air fighters.

(Video: CBS News)

Related:
Surveillance Orbits for From-Scratch Air Forces
Murtha’s Air Force: More F-22s and Tankers, Delayed F-35
What’s Wrong with the F-22?
Raptor Gets Congressional Reprieve
Offiziere.ch: the Emerging U.S. Counter-Insurgency Air Force
Congressional Budget Office’s Plans to Save the Air Force
Air Force Turns a Corner
Gates Budgetpalooza: Air Force Loses Altitude
The Day U.S. Air Power Was Saved from Itself
F-22s versus Russia’s Rusting, Ramshackle Air Force

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11 Responses to “How to Turn a Drone into a Dogfighter”

  1. daskro says:

    Another point to consider is that our current AMRAAAMs’s phit ratio is much to desired. Unmanned and manned systems alike would benefit greatly by improving AMRAAM to the point where it can hit its target at least half the time.

  2. ELP says:

    It is all about the network. So far, drones have been operating in a permissive environment. Going against an enemy that can jam out the network is going to be a big problem. Just because something works in Operation: USELESS DIRT, doesn’t mean that it is useable vs. a first team player.

  3. RSF says:

    Drones are fine if you are fighting insurgents. They will be next to useless fighting an enemy with advanced technology. There are countless ways to jam and disrupt drones. Admiral Mullen is living in the same fantasy land as Mr. Gates, etc. Considering how behind schedule the F-35 program is, it might well be the last US piloted fighter!

  4. Sander says:

    In all recent wars, manned fighters have used intense communication to find their targets, and can even use AWACS to guide their missiles (which certainly improves stealth).

    There would be little difference with a drone fighter, except that they’d do the job cheaper and better. Give it a decade, and computers will do 90% of the thinking anyway.

    If an opponent does have the technology to block drone communications, than I’d be more worried about what else they could have, like anti-stealth radars.

  5. DensityDuck says:

    The US has been operating UCAV since the 1950s. We just call them “guided missiles”. There’s a reason that missiles were originally given F-for-fighter designation numbers…

  6. [...] Despite their hatred of “high-tech”, some in the media are looking to the future to replace costly manned systems. For instance, UAV’s could some day replace manned combat aircraft. “Someday” is still far off however (the author of one article admits that the technology is still a ways away). But UAV’s are playing a greater and greater role in combat operations. [...]

  7. Elmo says:

    Drone into a Dogfighter –> pilot optional F-35

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  9. [...] Using today’s force as a guide, we can assume we’ll need: fairly slow, long-loitering drones for ground attack and surveillance; and faster drones — with necessarily shorter loiter times — for air-to-air combat and penetrating missions. Both basic types can be scaled upward or downward for niche missions. Optimistically, most tactical combat functions will be handled by just these two basic aircraft designs, versus the seven in service today. [...]

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  11. [...] could be accelerated to field the Navy’s next long-range bomber. Future versions could also handle air-defense missions, they proposed. In Ehrhard’s and Work’s vision, the X-47 could deliver more firepower [...]

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