Saturday, February 22, 2014

Throwaway UAV

ComNavOps had a discussion with regular reader B.Smitty in the offensive Navy post (see, The Best Defense Is A Good Offense) which concerned my proposal for a simple, affordable, throwaway UAV.  B.Smitty asked for more information and, due to the space limitations in the comments, I’m placing the answer here, as a post.  While this post is a response to B.Smitty’s inquiry, the post is not, by any means, an attack on him.  Quite the opposite.  His questions inspired the idea for this post and I thank him!  He also provided a fascinating link that I’ve copied and will refer to.

Briefly put, I see a need for an attack capability between the 1000 nm Tomahawk and the short range Hornet, especially for riskier missions.

Hopefully, we’ll develop a longer ranged Tomahawk replacement as well as Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles so that would cover the very long range, high risk, heavy hitting, deep penetration strike mission.  Carrier aircraft can cover the shorter range, less risky missions.  That leaves the 300 nm – 1000 nm range, higher risk missions that don’t warrant a costly Tomahawk/IRBM or need a degree of man-in-the-loop control that a UAV offers.

Let’s suppose we want to attack shipping in a harbor (Tomahawks can hit the fixed facilities) but not indiscriminately.  We want to arrive at the target and evaluate what’s there:  civilian/military, moving/docked, ready/refitting, or whatever other criteria.  We need the ability for a man-in-the-loop to make an assessment before committing to the attack but the target is outside the effective range of carrier strike aircraft and/or is too risky.  We need an affordable, throwaway UAV that we’re willing to lose to accomplish the mission.

The same concept applies to a fluid battlefield where legitimate targets are mixed in with off-limits targets.

Well, wait a minute.  We have, and continue to develop, strike UAVs.  Why does ComNavOps think we need yet another?  The answer is simple.  The UAVs we have or are developing as strike platforms are, or will be, far too expensive to use as throwaways.  We’re developing the UAVs because we see a set of targets and scenarios that are too dangerous to risk manned aircraft.  Everyone wants to trumpet the ability to send UAVs on deep penetration, high risk missions. Well, that's a great use for them but what no one appreciates is that, by definition, most of them won't come back.  At a hundred millions dollars or so per UAV, we won't be able (or willing) to throw them away and we won't have many even if we were willing to expend them. 

If you think the cost is wrong and that long range strike UAVs will be cheap, consider what a manned aircraft would cost for the same capability.  A thousand mile combat range, stealth, strike fighter would cost $200M or so.  Look at what the much shorter range F-35 costs.  A strike UAV would cost exactly the same, less the pilot support costs which isn’t much and is offset by adding in the remote control equipment.

We need to rethink our approach to UAVs. Right now, when the Navy starts a UAV design, it starts with complex, sophisticated, and multi-functional requirements. Well, bang, there goes affordable before the first design sketch is made. We need to start with simple and affordable as our initial criteria. No bells and whistles, just a single purpose executed as simply as possible. The Scan Eagle is an example of a simple but useful UAV. Of course I understand that a Scan Eagle can't carry a 2000 lb bomb over a thousand miles!  It just illustrates the concept of simple and basic functionality.

We need a simple, basic UAV that isn't designed with complex stealth, state of the art sensors, sophisticated countermeasures, high performance, a 50 year lifespan, etc. Just a simple long range engine with a basic guidance/sensor package sufficient to get it from point A to point B.

Is this technically achievable? I don't see why not but who knows. The point is that we've never tried this approach. Instead, we want to build ultra-sophisticated aircraft that can't help but cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Throwaway UAV?

Hey, what about survivability?  If we build a simple UAV it won’t survive to reach its target.  Well, survivability takes many forms. One is ultra-stealth. Another is sophisticated countermeasures. Yet another is super/hyper sonic speed. Or ultra-maneuverability. These are the survivability forms that the Navy is pursuing.

Survivability can also take simpler forms. Flying at literally wavetop heights makes an aircraft very hard to detect or engage. So what if some crash into the sea if we can build them cheap enough. Numbers is a form of survivability, too. Launching a thousand (to use a ridiculous number to make a point) simple UAVs at a target guarantees some will get through to accomplish the mission.

Enough background.  Here’s the requirements that I see for a simple, affordable, throwaway UAV.

Range:  600 nm with recovery (in true throwaway mode that’s 1200 nm)
Speed:  Mid to High Subsonic
Payload:  1000 lbs
Stealth:  Moderate (shaped body only – no coatings or other extraordinary measures)

The UAV would be cheap enough to be throwaway but designed for recovery if they do survive.  Bear in mind, though, that recovery doesn’t have to be a carrier recovery.  It can be diversion to a land base, drop in the sea near a recovery ship, barrier arrestment on the launching ship, or some other non-sophisticated means.
How would these UAVs be operated?  Being cheap, I would envision these to be readily available in large numbers and launched from converted commercial cargo ships via a simple catapult.  The ship would basically be a UAV carrier with hangar/storage space and control stations for the remote pilots.

B.Smitty provided a link to an interesting starting point for such a UAV, the Low Cost Autonomous Attack System that was investigated and dropped.  A suitably modified and scaled up version might be in the ballpark of what’s needed.



As far as cost, I would like to believe we could build such a UAV for $100K - $500K each.  Can we?  Who knows? 

So, there you have it.  A simple, affordable fairly long range strike UAV that is cheap enough to build in large numbers and, when necessary, used as a throwaway platform to accomplish the mission.

10 comments:

  1. This is a classic case of a Navy-centric solution looking for a problem. Let’s start with the performance requirements the author outlines.

    A strike-aircraft which can go high subsonic, has a radius of action of 600 nm, is moderately stealthy, can carry a 1,000 lbs payload, and can maintain link in an A2/AD environment is not going to be small or cheap. The proposed $100-500K unit cost is off by an order of magnitude. Perhaps two.

    But let’s assume we can launch these assets from a Navy vessel. Recovery is going to be a nightmare. Designing a system which can launch from one vessel and recover at any number of potential locations, in large numbers, during wartime, is fraught with complications:

    1. Barrier arrestment. You’re almost certainly going to need a ship with a large flight deck and lots of storage space. Probably on the order of an amphib or a USNS. We don’t exactly have a lot of either type. And you’re going to have to station it in a relatively static location within 600 nm of the enemy coast. And keep them there for some amount of time after the strike.

    2. Drop in the sea near a recovery ship. As in the example above you’ll need a dedicated ship with the appropriate gear (cranes, etc.) and lots of storage space. Again probably an amphib or a USNS. And you’ll have to park it for hours within close proximity of enemy coast.

    3. Diversion to a land base. Probably the easiest to do from a technical standpoint. But assuming we have a functioning base within 600 nm of the enemy which we could use for recovery, why exactly do we need a sea-launched UAS?

    But let’s assume any one of the three recovery options above could somehow be made to work. How long is it going to take to get the UAS serviced, rearmed and back into a launch status? Days? Weeks? Sortie generation rate would be abysmal. The war might very well be over.

    The author has laid out a niche system capable of carrying and delivering a single 1,000 lbs payload. Unit costs will be on the order of several million dollars apiece. With no feasible way to recover or re-use in wartime. So why not just buy more Tomahawks?

    If we’re really trying to solve the strike in an A2/AD environment, an extremely long-ranged bomber with a standoff weaponry makes a lot more sense.

    Matt

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  2. If these are going into risky environments, won't the remote control be jammed? Look at how the Iranians stole that RQ-170. Just an example, I'm not saying countermeasures haven't progressed (or even basic common sense in this example), but so have the abilities of competitors. It seems like one would need eyes on the ground, or eyes in the air, with the ability to communicate with the UAV from a relatively short distance away as opposed to a direct connect with the launching vessel. Perhaps hand-off along the way so various observers can take control of the UAV as jamming becomes untenable over longer distances.

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    1. JI, you're quite right. Communications is the Achilles Heel of UAVs and I think the military is overestimating their ability to maintain control in a contested electromagnetic environment. That said, I'm simply making the assumption that whatever method the military thinks will work will be applied to my proposal, as well. If it turns out that no UAV can be reliably controlled beyond short range line of sight then neither the military's UAVs nor mine will work. Consider, though, that the military is betting heavily on UAVs so they obvioiusly think they can handle the long range control. Of course, they've been wrong before!

      Good comment!

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  3. The author appears to have made some factual and conceptual errors when it comes to assessing maximum strike ranges of naval aircraft.

    I am really not sure where the author came up with his purported 300 nm strike. I'm guessing this number is based on the older F/A-18C. The Super Hornet and F-35C will both have longer ranges.

    More importantly, the author’s range calculations also seem to assume that the strike aircraft has to deliver its weapon directly overhead the target. This hasn't been true for at least 20 years.

    The Navy and Air Force have been employing long-range strike missiles against heavily defended targets since the first Gulf War. These weapons can have ranges of several hundred miles.

    A more accurate methodology would take into account the range of the entire strike 'system-of-systems' = the combat radius of the aircraft PLUS the range of its standoff weapon.

    And doing so calls into question whether the Navy will even have a range gap in the 300-1,000 nm bracket – which appears to be the author’s central premise for why the Navy needs his ‘simple' disposable UAV:

    1. CURRENT CAPABILITY.

    a. The combat radius of F/A-18E Super Hornet is 490 nm.
    b. The AGM-84E Standoff Land Attack Missile Extended Range (SLAM-ER) can be carried by the F/A-18E – and has a max range of 150 nm.
    c. The F/A-18E + SLAM-ER system-of-systems is therefore capable of striking targets out to 490+ 150 = 640 nm.

    2. FUTURE CAPABILITY.

    a. The combat radius of the F-35C (Navy variant) will be about 600 nm.
    b. The AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) will be carried internally by the F-35C - and has a max range of 200 nm.
    c. The F-35C + JASSM system-of-systems is therefore capable of striking targets out to 600 + 200 = 800 nm.

    3. POTENTIAL FUTURE CAPABILITY.

    a. The combat radius of the F-35C (Navy variant) will be about 600 nm.
    b. The AGM-158B JASSM-ER could be carried externally by the F-35C and has a max range of 540 nm.
    c. The F-35C + JASSM-ER system-of-systems is capable of striking targets out to 600 + 540 = 1,140 nm.

    Matt

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  4. According to this,

    http://ericpalmer.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/4202_wallacepdf.pdf

    A Super Hornet can carry a pair of SLAM-ERs out to a 805mn radius. This is in an anti-shipping capacity, but no reason why it couldn't do so for a strike mission.

    Of course AAR can extend this range considerably.

    SLAM-ER has a datalink and IR sensor that allows man-in-the-loop retargeting. Not exactly a UAV, but it at least has some ability to handle unexpected target locations.

    JSOW-ER might have a similar capability out to 300nm.

    Take a look at the Israeli Delilah cruise missile. It can loiter over the target and send back imagery, allowing the pilot to search for targets before specifying one for attack.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delilah_(missile)

    All of these are obviously not UAVs. They are retargetable munitions. This saves the cost and weight associated with recoverability and reusability. And since they are "two-stage" systems (launched from a manned aircraft first stage), the second stage munition doesn't have to have 1,000nm range by itself.

    Back in 2006, Boeing looked at combining its Area Dominator demonstrator with ScanEagle technology to make an air-launched UAV. It wouldn't carry a munition, but would be used to extend the sensor footprint of aircraft.



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    1. B.Smitty. SLAM-ER is a strike (land-attack) and an anti-ship missile.

      I agree with your 'two-stage' approach to assessing range. It corresponds closely with the 'system-of-systems' approach I outlined above…. and which I think was sorely missing in the original article.

      One last thing to point out is cost. SLAM-ER, JSOW and JASSM all appear to have unit costs in the $500K to $700K range. This begs the following question:

      If an air-launched, non-recoverable, strike weapon costs upward of $500K… how much would a "simple" ship-launched, mid-to-high subsonic, recoverable, moderately stealthy strike UAV cost?

      My guess is certainly not $100K to $500k proposed by the author.

      Given the level of complexity in the "simple" UAV, it’ll probably be multiple millions apiece. And in the end all you get is the ability to deliver a single 1,000 lbs payload. Seems silly.

      Matt

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    2. B. Smitty. I forgot to add that you are 100% correct on the strike mission radius for the Super Hornet with three fuel tanks.

      Based on that data, the maximum strike range of the F/A-18E + SLAM-ER system-of-systems is properly stated as:

      805 nm (F/A-18E) + 150 nm (SLAM-ER) = 955 nm.

      So we've ALREADY closed the 300-1,000 nm engagement gap proposed by the author - which apparently never even existed.

      Matt

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    3. Matt, one caveat to this is if the Super Hornet needs to guide a SLAM-ER terminally, it won't be able to go out to its full combat radius. It will have to reserve some fuel to loiter during the munition's approach.

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    4. True enough. And here’s the math:

      - SLAM-ER at Mach 0.7 (450 knots) will cover its maximum range of 150 nm in about 20 minutes

      - F/A-18E cruises at 600 knots, so 20 minutes of flight time equates to 200 nm of distance traveled.

      - Subtracting 200 nm off F/A-18E combat radius leads to a max. launch range of 805 – 200 = 605 nm/

      - This yields a system-of-system engagement range of 605 + 150 = 755 nm.

      This is still quite a bit higher than my original estimate. And I see a couple different ways which will get the system-of-system engagement range closer to 1,000 nm.

      a. A recovery tanker to refuel the strike aircraft on its way back. I’m pretty sure that’s what we’d do now with the Super Hornet.

      b. A strike aircraft with a greater combat radius than the Super Hornet. It appears that the F-35C will provide this.

      c. A more capable 360 degree data link. I can only assume that F-35C with it’s built in Sniper XR capability will provide this.

      Matt

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  5. True enough. And here’s the math:

    - SLAM-ER at Mach 0.7 (450 knots) will cover its maximum range of 150 nm in about 20 minutes

    - F/A-18E cruises at 600 knots, so 20 minutes of flight time equates to 200 nm of distance traveled.

    - Subtracting 200 nm off F/A-18E combat radius leads to a max. launch range of 805 – 200 = 605 nm/

    - This yields a system-of-system engagement range of 605 + 150 = 755 nm.

    This is still quite a bit higher than my original estimate. And I see a couple different ways which will get the system-of-system engagement range closer to 1,000 nm.

    a. A recovery tanker to refuel the strike aircraft on its way back. I’m pretty sure that’s what we’d do now with the Super Hornet.

    b. A strike aircraft with a greater combat radius than the Super Hornet. It appears that the F-35C will provide this.

    c. A more capable 360 degree data link. I can only assume that F-35C with it’s built in Sniper XR capability will provide this.

    Matt

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