Christian's post of yesterday talking about how the Air Force has lost its grasp on being the executive agent for all unmanned aerial X_47B_UAV.jpgvehicles (medium- to high-flying UAVs and tactical mobility responsibilities) is really the tip of a huge iceberg regarding unmanned capabilities.
The crux of this situation revolves around Congress, who mandated in the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act, that "by 2010, one-third of the aircraft in the operational deep strike force aircraft fleet are unmanned."
"Deep-strike" is one of the most important aspects of any air campaign, for obvious reasons. For the Air Force, this isn't much of a problem with their ground support infrastructure built around a two and a half mile-long or longer runway (assuming they have basing rights relatively close to an area of operations). For the Navy, however, this mandate presents significant technical and logistical problems - taking off and landing back on an aircraft carrier is not the easiest thing to do, and doing it with an unmanned 20,000 lb jet would strike fear into even the hardiest flight deck personnel.
DARPA's Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (JUCAS), a demonstrator program which, for the Air Force AND Navy, is to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value for a networked system of high performance, weaponized unmanned air vehicles, talks about a platform with a radius of 1300 nm, a persistence capability of 1000 nm with 2 hrs loiter time and a payload of 4500 lb. Northrop-Grumman was recently awarded the contract for this demonstrator, the X-47B. This is no Predator-sized aerial vehicle. Having one hiccup in the data stream of flight data controlling the thing when it is at the ramp is not a good thing.
Yesterday's post spoke of Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England halting the "U.S. Air Force's controversial push to take over management of the Pentagon's growing Unmanned Air System (UAS) fleet." To the Navy (and the Army to some extent since they, too, were grumpy about the AF cornering the market on UCAV management) this was sweet music. With so many rice bowls around and competitions to see who has the biggest bladder, and with the technical challenges that the Navy has in carrier-izing a UCAV, taking another look at this whole mandated capability is a good thing.