Sunday, June 17, 2012

Times are changing . . .

 — MQ-4C Triton —
THIS IS ABOUT THE FUTURE, and choices we have to make now, that we will have to live with for decades. We've been watching Stevie and AIRSHOW stumble around like a pair of drunks as they pursue their F-35 financial fetish. And the F-35 has problems, as we have seen: it's behind schedule, and vastly over-budget, and as some fairly knowledgeable people have observed, it's not really what Canada needs, just what Stevie wants.

So, this is old news, and why dredge it up? Well, there were a couple of happenings this week that might offer interesting alternatives to the F-35. The US Navy is proceeding with its program to acquire RPV (remotely piloted vehicles)-drone (autonomous, self-controlled) capabilities for both surveillance and interception. These drone-RPV's are not the Predators that have the Taliban so upset, the Predator is like a WW1 Sopwith Camel, and these are like WW2 F-4U Corsairs, faster, deadlier, tougher, with all-weather de-icing, and capable of the "controlled crash" of carrier landings.

The first happening was an "oops!" — the USN reported the crash of one of their "older" prototype BAMS-D vehicles. They are unarmed, improved versions of the Northrop Global Hawk, with BAMS as their mission: Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, but BAMS-D is an interim model; it's full-strength BAMS that the USN is developing for the decades ahead. What's a BAMS? A heavy-duty Global Hawk, called the MQ-4C Triton.
 — X-47B UCLASS hunter-killer —
— Boeing's UCLASS design —
BAMS takes off and lands solely from land and is operated by a four-person crew – including one pilot – from a ground control station. The pilot uses mouse clicks on a computer screen rather than stick and rudder to fly the plane. When BAMS departs or arrives on U.S. territory or flies within 12 miles of the coast, the Navy will need a special FAA waiver to fly in public airspace called a Certificate of Authorization (COA), just as the Air Force does when its Global Hawks depart or arrive at their home bases in California and North Dakota. COAs typically require that a manned chase plane provide "see and avoid" capability for a UAS.

Once outside U.S. airspace, BAMS can cruise at altitudes well above most air lanes used by passenger jets and other manned aircraft. Unlike Global Hawk, however, BAMS will be able to descend to lower altitudes if necessary to more closely examine items of interest picked up by its ISR radar or daylight and infrared cameras.

An RPV-drone that will be flying in commercial airspace, if its controllers want. The Navy is also putting a two-way radio on BAMS so its crew can talk to air traffic controllers the way manned aircraft pilots do, and it's equipping the drone with standard safe separation and navigation and surveillance technologies manned aircraft use -- TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) and ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast).

The second happening was the approval of landing software for
UCLASS: Unmanned Carrier-launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike. The USN is very serious about RPV-drones as offensive weapons too. It's about saving money and lives. The USN is trying to reduce the sheer number of sailors required to fight a ship by automating systems wherever possible, as you may have noticed with the Zumwalt, the proposed new USN littoral frigate. Saves payroll, training costs, but also reduced human environmental concerns promotes survivability in combat.

A 7-g loading is about the limit for humans; it's debilitating, and even with training and g-suits, pilots can't take a lot and as well, the change from plus-g to minus-g loading adds to the wear-and-tear as the human circulatory system rebels. The USN is working on offensive, "killer" RPV drones that will do + 12g -12g as fast as the RPV pilot can tell it to do so, and keep doing it until it runs out of fuel.  Dog-fight hunter-killer, indeed.

Boeing and Northrop are building prototypes. The Northrop X-47B and the as-yet un-named Boeing design are the first generation of really high-performance (high sub-sonic) offensive RPV's. Northrop's software for automated carrier landings has been approved. Projected timeline is 2018, for the first carrier landings of the X-47B.

Canada has to make a choice, and make it soon, as to replacing our F-18's. My opinion is that Canada should walk away from the F-35, and buy as many Super Hornets as we need, and improved JDAM's for them. With the money thus saved, Canada should get involved in the USN RPV-drone program.

It's just my opinion, but the un-armed BAMS is ideal for our Arctic surveillance, and is available well before the end of the decade, and can even be deployed in the far Arctic. And when machinery breaks, there's no Emergency Search-and-Rescue required. As well, if money permits, the acquisition of a 2015 technology STOL transport like a Super Buffalo, maybe even designed and built in Canada would also be useful for Arctic service. The timing works well, too: we can get the Super Hornets as soon as a production block can be reserved, and before the end of the decade (2017-18), we can be doing 7-24 un-armed BAMS surveillance of our entire Arctic, and if, say, the USN goes with the X-47, buy some of those, have offensive patrols up there by 2020.

Looking into the future, sometimes greedy nations get stupid over sovereignty, so maybe the acquisition of an offensive RPV-drone might be a good way to convince the other Arctic nations and those countries that wish to be intrusive, that we really do care about our turf. And if it has to go active, well +/- 12 g's and 30mm cannon or whatever missile it launches will probably fix the problem.

Canadian involvement in the RPV-drone programs can only help our computer design industry stay with the future — this appears to be a growth industry, unlike building manned fighter aircraft. It's all about the development of Artificial Intelligence, a Super Siri, a happy HAL, a C3PO or an R2D2: it's coming, and it might be a good idea for Canada to have a part in how it comes about. But Stevie wants the F-35.


Steve said...

It the logical move, so it will never happen under the Harper government. Harper is looking a fiscal time bomb to destroy the safety net.

However, the NDP would be smart to jump all over this thinking.

Mark, Ottawa said...


"USN U(C)AVs: More on the Wings of Things to Come…"

By the way, I can never see the NDP supporting serious strike UCAVs.


Purple library guy said...

I was with you until the dogfighting drones. Wouldn't they be vulnerable to jamming (and/or hacking)?