Drone Plans Accelerated

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Drone Plans Accelerated

The US looks to be speeding up its armed drone development. But will it ever go with autonomous drones?

Squeezed between rising costs and declining budgets, the US Navy is considering cutting or abandoning the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme in favour of accelerated development of aircraft carrier-launched, armed drones. But it’s unclear how much confidence the Navy has in such robotic aircraft’s combat capabilities.

A July 7 memo from Navy Undersecretary Bob Work directed naval aviation officials to consider alternatives to existing plans for purchasing 680 F-35B and F-35C from Lockheed Martin at a potential total cost of no less than $68 billion. The F-35B, optimized for the US Marine Corps, lands vertically; the F-35C is a conventional-landing aircraft meant for the Navy.

According to Work, alternatives could include reducing the overall F-35 purchase or cancelling one of the variants. Work asked officials to consider speeding up the development of unmanned aircraft, which as I’ve said before could be used to counter China, in order to compensate for possible cuts to the F-35. A report on these alternatives was due in late July, but the results haven’t been released so far. 

The Navy is testing two X-47B armed, jet-powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, built by Northrop Grumman, in anticipation of buying operational robotic warplanes for service around 2018. The first X-47B took off on its over-land, inaugural flight in February and is slated to go to sea for carrier tests in 2013. The test programme’s budget exceeds $1 billion.

The 38-foot-long, flying-wing robots boast a high degree of control autonomy from their remote human operators. ‘They have a machine-to-machine interface,’ Northrop Vice President Carl Johnson told The Diplomat. ‘They communicate with a carrier over an air-ship interface that is direct communications. There is a man in the loop – he can monitor and over-ride the autonomous systems – but the vehicle comes and lands on the ship on its own.’

But that flight autonomy doesn’t necessarily translate into fighting autonomy, possibly limiting the X-47’s combat potential. For the foreseeable future, human operators will approve any weapons launch from drones – even though the drone can, in theory, sense targets and react to them faster than any human being can.

The constraints the Pentagon places on its UAVs are a product of trust and accountability issues. ‘If a UAV is nearly fully autonomous and puts a bomb on a school bus and not a supply truck, who gets held up for the penalty?’ asked one drone engineer who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity. ‘You can bet they don’t want to go anywhere near that, so thus we don’t have them (fully autonomous, armed drones), but could.’

While trust issues will likely limit the combat potential of robotic warplanes, the Pentagon won’t stop pursuing advanced drone capabilities that fall just short of full autonomy. That’s a good reason to continue betting on pilotless airplanes, especially as pressure grows to cut back on the F-35. Unmanned technology is ‘one of the few parts of the defence budget that will grow in future years,’ says Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution analyst.