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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)
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