Friday, April 30, 2010

The Future Really IS Unmanned

This semester we have read a lot about UAVs and their increasing importance. Well, UAVs just got a big boost from the Air Force. Thus far UAVs have been used for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and battlefield strike. The Air Force wants them to do even more in the future. The service is reevaluating and expanding the missions its MQ-X next generation UAV will be required to perform. Air Force officials are going to scrap the initial capabilities document drafted by Air Combat Command on the MQ-X and begin anew with a “broader group of stakeholders” involved in the process.

In addition to Air Combat Command, Air Force Materiel Command, Air Mobility Command, and Air Force Special Operations Command are going to give their input as to what they need out of a next generation UAV. Service officials want the MQ-X and all future UAVs to be able to carry and operate a variety of mission payloads in the same way a C-130 can today. New plans will focus on areas outside the traditional ISR and strike missions handled by the service's UAV fleet. Capabilities include close air support, combat search and rescue, airlift, force protection and operating in contested or denied airspace. Officials say that at a minimum, the aircraft must have protected communications and datalinks, the ability to survive in contested airspace, incorporate sense-and-avoid technology, and enough power generating and cargo capacity to allow it to carry a variety of sensors and weapons.

At a minimum, MQ-X is supposed to replace the service’s Reapers in the role of strike and ISR planes. But we already know UAVs are good at that. The Air Force is right on to realize that UAVs are going to be more and more important. The question is: why are they just getting serious about investigating UAV’s future capabilities now? It remains to be seen if the Air Force will fully embrace UAVs as the future of the service or if their leadership, made up of pilots, is going to be willing to give up on having pilots in the cockpit.

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