Imagine a scenario where a human pilot is accompanied by a fleet of robotic wingmen, each of them ready to attack any wayward enemy aircraft that dares to get in their way. The U.S. Navy says it's a distinct possibility — one that's not beyond current technological capabilities.
Top image: Lockheed Martin UCLASS.
Now that the U.S. military has these handy-dandy Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) weapons, it's seriously considering their use in an air-to-air role. So says USNI News who recently interviewed the Navy's director of air warfare Rear Adm. Mike Manazir. This is an intriguing development because UCLASS vehicles were specifically designed for strike roles, intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
Here's how the proposed system would work: Take a UCLASS aircraft, like an X-47B UAV, and equip it with a bunch of AMRAAMs (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles). Because it's just a drone, it would serve as a virtual airborne transport truck — it doesn't have the capacity (or the legal provision) to instigate an air-to-air attack on its own (at least not yet). So each UCLASS would be be accompanied by a human pilot flying, say, a Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye or a Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. These human flight leaders would remotely command the UCLASS vehicles and serve as the decision-maker.
In other words, a single pilot could have one or more robotic wingmen accompanying them during a mission. Very armed and dangerous wingmen.
More from USNI's interview with Manazir:
"This is not beyond the state-of-the-art," Pietrucha said. "The difficulty is always that the aircraft it self has no judgment and no prioritization scheme and isn't going to have the systems onboard to do all things that a fighter does."
The solution, Pietrucha said, is to leverage the sensors, situational awareness and inherent human judgment of a fighter pilot in a manned command aircraft. The manned aircraft would detect, track and identify the target, then hand-off the target for the unmanned aircraft to engage the "bandit"—as hostile targets are known.
"The Navy is ahead of the Air Force on this," Pietrucha said, specifically citing the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) concept where a common air picture would be shared across multiple air platforms via a network of data-links.
Under the NIFC-CA concept, any "shooter" can fire on a target that is being tracked by a "sensor", so long as the target is within range.
"If you solve that problem, then your missile caddy UCAV [unmanned combat air vehicle] wingman is a going concern," Pietrucha said. "You can now target his missiles for him."
Read the rest of the article here.