Monday, January 12, 2015

UCLASS Controller

Our past discussions have touched on the use of the F-35 as a local controller for an Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) strike aircraft.  The concept is that we are not at the stage of autonomous programming behavior that would allow the UCLASS to truly function on its own in a contested and complex environment so the F-35 would act as a man-in-the-loop local controller for the UCLASS.  Let’s look a bit closer at this concept.

We have to start by stipulating that this is almost entirely uninformed conjecture.  There is no official doctrine related to this that I’m aware of.  Further, the UCLASS not only hasn’t been built, yet, but hasn’t even been spec’ed.  In fact, we don’t even have agreement on the conceptual scope of the UCLASS design.  There are two camps, one pushing for an ISR UCLASS and the other for a full, deep penetration strike aircraft. 

Further, we have no concrete description of what “control” entails.  Is it remote control flying all the way to the target?  Is it analyzing sensor data and then designating targets and allocating ordnance?  Is it simply being available as a human fail safe but otherwise remaining inactive during the course of the UCLASS mission?  Something else?

Thus, it’s premature, at best, and irresponsible, for sure, to begin analyzing the F-35/UCLASS control methodology so that’s exactly what we’ll attempt to do!

The success of the concept depends, in large measure, on the degree of physical separation (the range) between the UCLASS and the F-35.  If, because of ECM, jamming, and communications difficulties, the F-35 has to fly wingtip to wingtip (on a relative basis, not literally) all the way to the release point then there’s no need for the UCLASS – the F-35 would already be there and could simply release the ordnance itself.

Control distance is also an issue as it relates to the F-35’s survival and involvement in combat.  If the F-35 has to be close enough to the strike area that enemy fighters and SAMs can find it and engage, the F-35 will probably be too busy to fighting for its life to control another aircraft.

Thus, the control range is a critical factor but it’s the realistic control range that can be achieved in an electromagnetically contested environment with active enemy ECM and jamming.  Currently, we believe that we can control UAVs half-way around the world but we’re going to find that in a war against a peer our communications and control capability is going to be seriously degraded.  ECM, jamming, degraded GPS, loss of satellite comm relays, and cyber attacks will conspire to render our peacetime expectations completely invalid.  Similarly, our optimistic assessment of the control distance between an F-35 and a UCLASS is, undoubtedly, going to prove invalid.  I would guess that the control distance will be a degraded line of sight, meaning around half line of sight.

I also wonder about the control signal reception and transmission.  Will the F-35 control aircraft have to maintain a specific attitude relative to the UCLASS in order to maintain a directional link and antenna geometery?  Will a maneuvering F-35 disrupt its own control signal by masking and unmasking its antenna?  I have absolutely no idea.  I merely pose the question.

Let’s move on to the actual control.  Are we going to ask a single pilot to fly his F-35, monitor threats to his own aircraft, fight for survival, and simultaneously control some number of UCLASS?  This sounds like way too much of a workload for a single pilot.  That leaves us with the need for a two-seat F-35.

Aside from the fact that there is no two-seat combat F-35, can a backseat operator effectively control another aircraft while his own plane is engaged in combat and pulling high-g’s or will the combat maneuvering render any hope of control null?  It would take a very calm, cool, and collected backseater to methodically work his control charges while the aircraft is fighting for its life!  This gets back to the previous question of standoff distance between the F-35 and UCLASS.  Without knowing the control distance, we can’t really address this aspect intelligently.  Still, it seems quite likely that a two seat F-35 will be needed since by definition these missions will be in the heart of enemy defenses and the F-35 pilot will probably be fully occupied monitoring and maneuvering to avoid those defenses.

Now, let’s consider the opportunity cost associated with this concept.  If the UCLASS requires an F-35 controller, that means we need to send two aircraft (or whatever the control ratio is) to execute a single ordnance release.  Not very efficient.  Further, tying up F-35s as controllers means that they can’t be executing another mission – the opportunity cost.  Worse, the controller would be the Navy’s absolute top of the line aircraft – almost a double opportunity cost hit.  It would be one thing if the controller were a helo that didn’t have any other high priority mission to do anyway but the F-35 will, presumably, be in ultimate demand and tying them down as controllers is a big hit on the air wing’s overall capability.  Of course, to be fair, if the target is sufficiently valuable then the opportunity cost is worth it.  However, the implication of that is that only a very small handful of missions would justify the use of the UCLASS/F-35 combo.  In that case, one has to question the usefulness of the UCLASS to begin with.

Another variation to the control scheme that has been proposed is a string of relay aircraft sending control and/or data streams back to the carrier.  This simply takes the preceding concept and multiplies it in regards to the opportunity cost.  If we have to dedicate several F-35s to each UCLASS we’re killing our combat efficiency.

Frankly, I don’t see the value of the strike UCLASS and the need for an F-35 controller (if, indeed, it does!) diminishes the value even further.


  1. The Navy came out earlier this month with an indication that the future UCAV would be organized under E-2C/D squadrons:

    To me, this says two things: one, the workload on a single pilot that is also responsible for fighting his own aircraft is too great; and two, the UCAV might end up being more of an ISR asset rather than a striker. It has always seemed to me that managing a another aircraft from a single seat fighter cockpit was asking too much of the pilot - which is why I thought either a EA-18 or an -18F would be ideal candidates. The notion of using the JSF was just another marketing ploy by the F-35 stakeholder, aka mafia.

    1. Charley, that's a very reasonable assessment on your part. Thanks.

  2. I proposed the controller as a way to get around the apocalyptic scenario of comms and GPS degraded/denied, peer-level IADS penetration problem.

    If this won't work, what are the other options?

    A manned, penetrating strike aircraft with high degrees of all around stealth, backed with robust SEAD/DEAD, jamming and deception can do the apocalypse mission. Not an inexpensive proposition and we only have a handful of B-2s and F-22s that can do this now, and F-22s are range and payload limited.

    Cruise missiles will suffer even more in this environment. Without comms and GPS, they will be back to hitting pre-planned targets using TERCOM guidance, something UCLASS (theoretically) can do on its own too.

    UCLASS will still have the benefits of be reusable (assuming manageable attrition) , greater munition flexibility, better organic targeting sensors, and the ability to air refuel (in theory). It will also have the option of performing the recon mission, if suitably equipped. And during all of far more likely non-apocalyptic scenarios, UCLASS will have more all around utility.

    So if not these options, then what?

    1. B.Smitty, I'm all for the UAV strike, in concept, without consideration of costs. Hey, we can throw unmanned UAVs at a target with no cares whatsoever, Who cares is a bunch get shot down. The problem is when you factor in costs. At $193M each, these kind of high risk missions will have significant attrition and, therefore, significant cost. Too much cost. Unaffordable cost.

      What's the alternative?

      Most obvious is simple cruise missiles. At $1M or so, we can afford to throw hundreds at a target for the cost of a single lost UAV. Losses will be meaningless by comparison.

      Alternatively, ballistic missiles would be useful. I don't know what the cost would be for an intermediate range, simple missile without all the bells and whistles but, presumably, it would be far less than a UAV. Someone can correct me if I'm wrong.

      And, of course, there's your personal favorite, the stealth bomber. You've described repeatedly how our bombers will roam at will, launching long range destruction with impunity. I don't believe this at all but I can't resist the chance to tweak you! :)

    2. B.Smitty, you make the statement that " ... during all of far more likely non-apocalyptic scenarios, UCLASS will have more all around utility." What logical basis do you have to make that statement? An F-35 or even F-18 can do everything a UCLASS can with, perhaps, the exception of endurance. In fact, I would argue that a manned aircraft has greater flexibility and control because it's manned. We're a long ways from Cylon AI, yet!

      Your statement may have a nugget of truth but you need to back it with data or logic if you want to convince me.

    3. If UCLASS is $193m per aircraft, then it's not worth it. I don't think it will be, though, unless we only commit to a tiny buy. It is not going to have Global Hawk-class wide area recon sensors. It will have Reaper-class sensors.

      It needs to be in the price range of a Super Hornet or less, which I think is doable for an X-47B-sized aircraft.

      $1-1.5 million per cruise missile, but you have to park your firing platform within 700nm of the target (likely far closer to the beach) using a Tomahawk-class missile. If the target is further than 700nm, then you're out of luck. You subject your platform to all manner of IADS dangers just to get within the firing window. Air launched cruise missiles are probably preferable, from this standpoint.

      A UCLASS (theoretically) could be launched well outside DF-21 range, and air refuel a couple times on the way there and back.
      Of course UCLASS could carry cruise missiles too. I would support at least a pair of external, removable pylons for this purpose.

      TERCOM is less accurate than GPS guidance, and your cruise missiles can only hit targets we've previously found for them.

      This discussion is really about the survivability of UCLASS. If we can manage the attrition rate, UCLASS will likely come out ahead. The cost of a cruise missile is two orders of magnitude higher than the cost of munitions dropped from a UCLASS. If the attrition rate is too high, then the cruise missile will win.

      Honestly, I think we need both, but we need longer ranged cruise missiles. The Defense Science Board suggested building a 3,000nm range missile using existing technology. It likely wouldn't fit in a VLS cell, but could be fired from specialized arsenal ships, aircraft or land bases. Who knows what this will add to the price.

      I meant UCLASS will have far more all around utility than cruise missiles in non-apocalyptic scenarios. This statement should require no further justification. I wasn't comparing it to manned aircraft.

      In these scenarios, it can fly the "refuelable Reaper" mission plan, which combines endurance/range with flexible munition loadouts. F-35s and F-18s can't do this. The X-47B has twice the combat radius of a Super Hornet and isn't endurance limited by the person in the cockpit. In theory, an AAR-capable UCLASS could fly 100 hour missions.

      Also, in scenarios between apocalyptic and benign, an X-47B UCLASS should be more survivable than the Super Hornet, and probably the F-35 as well, owing to its higher degree of stealth. Many nations are buying more advanced SAM systems and fighters that could challenge the 4th generation Super Hornet. And if you shoot one down? Eh. It's just money. There's no pilot to recover, torture and brandish on TV.

    4. B.Smitty, UCLASS vs cruise missile - OK, that's fair.

      Regarding endurance, read my reply to AJF below. The MTBF will be the limiting factor. In fact, I strongly suspect that issue has already caused the loss of many UAVs. - And before you attempt to cite Class A mishaps, recall that losses during missions aren't counted and, by all accounts, UAVs on missions have horrible loss rates.

      The survivability of an X-47-ish aircraft is an interesting topic. While it may (I stress may - it also may not - I've seen no hard evidence) be stealthier, it also has far less situational awareness which is fatal in combat. My personal opinion is that an X-47-ish will be somewhat less survivable, overall.

    5. The MTBF for Predators is comparable to manned aircraft. Mishap rate is certainly still higher. There are known reliability issues with the engine on the MQ-1B.

      "UAVs" include everything from hand-tossed aircraft all the way up to Global Hawk. To be fair, you really can only count Predators or equivalent, and above.

      I don't have good mission loss rate data handy for high-end UAVs.

      Here's a UAV reliability study done by the OSD,

    6. Interesting report. At a quick glance, those are some stunningly poor mishap rates. Those also don't include losses incurred during a mission. Mission losses are chalked up to enemy action regardless of whether they were actually combat related or just simple failures.

      The fact that MTBF is comparable to manned aircraft is exactly the point. There is nothing magic about unmanned aircraft that makes them inherently more likely to be able to successfully complete extremely long endurance flights. They're just as susceptible to failures as any other aircraft.

      All of this goes back to the point about UAV/UCLASS losses. They're going to be excessive on normal flights and hideous on high risk missions. At $190M per, that's not sustainable.

      Regarding cost, there is no reason and no evidence to support the contention that costs will be lower than for a comparable manned aircraft. Consider a very long range, penetrating X-47. It's essentially an F-35 but with much longer range, possibly better stealth, more complex software, etc. Flight performance criteria remain to be seen. Thus, the starting point for cost will be the F-35's $150M or so and it will just go up as capabilities are added. You might hope the Navy would produce a bare bones version but, seriously, when was the last time the Navy opted for simple over complex? Personally, I think we're looking at $200M+ per UCLASS if it's the stealthy, penetrating, do-everything aircraft that so many are calling for. For that price we can buy a LOT of cruise missiles.

      Finally, and I'm repeating an earlier comment, let's be fair. Let's not compare a current, nearly obsolete Tomahawk to a future, yet to even be spec'ed UCLASS. Instead, let's compare the future Tomahawk replacement with greater range, better stealth, improved sensors, a degree of autonomy, etc. to the future UCLASS. When we do that, the cruise missile at $1M (hey, let's be fair and call it $2M or $3M) is far more cost effective.

    7. I've stated previously why I don't think a UCLASS in the spirit of X-47B would cost $150+m. However if the Navy only buys a few, or spends a lot on the recon package, or opts for a much larger or more complex aircraft, it could get up there. If they stick to a Reaper+ sensor package on a roughly X-47B airframe, it should be a lot less than that.

      A new cruise missile will be constrained by the size of the Mk41 VLS. Tomahawks are already on the outer limit, IIRC. So you probably won't get that much more range without giving up payload.

      Of course you could go with a larger VLS like Mk57, but then you have to redesign your fleet around it.

      Any sensor or comms package on a new cruise missile would pale in comparison to what you can put on a UCLASS, due to cost and physical constraints. You might get somewhat better terminal guidance. Autonomy will also favor UCLASS for the same reasons. Comms, of course, are denied in every UCLASS scenario we talk about, so we must consider them denied to a future cruise missile too. ;)

      The main reason unmanned aircraft can complete long endurance flights is the lack of a human aboard. Pilots sitting in fighter cockpits are limited to 7-10 hours, tops, per sortie. UAVs routinely fly more than this today.

      Take a look at James Hasik's analysis in response to a Winslow Wheeler article.

      The Reaper SAR states a USAF requirement that a four-ship CAP orbit should be able to fly 7,300 hours per year. That's roughly 83% of an entire year, or ~21% of the entire year aloft per aircraft.

      You can't do that with manned fighter aircraft.

      I think we can agree on a couple things.

      1. The cost of a UCLASS, its anticipated attrition rate, and the degree of autonomy required will largely determine its viability as a strike platform.

      2. We need cruise missiles for at least certain classes of targets, though we disagree on the scope of the target set.

    8. One other thing. MTBFs will go up and losses will go down over time, as we learn more about failure modes and invest in fixes.

      The F-35 won't have a 2.5-4 hour MTBF for the life of the program. It will go up.

  3. Interesting topic ... As mostly conjecture, do not see the need support or debate, but will add a few comments.

    - As for utility, think mostly persistence when you think UAS. Manned aircraft are constrained by the man. W/o the man, you can have an asset on station for days or weeks. One asset can provide coverage without having to replace pilots every 2-6 hours; and one less landing event takes place each time it recycles.

    - Designs are less constrained w/o a manned cockpit. This is extremely important when you talk about shaping of the airframe and observability.

    - Controlling an UAV will never be a primary mission for the F-35. At best, it will be for a specific task or as a backup measure.

    1. AJF, you're correct that endurance is the main advantage of a UAV over a manned aircraft. However, before you accept that endurance can mean days or weeks, consider that the mean time between failure for the F-35 is currently around 2.5 hours with a goal of 4 hours which will probably not be achieved. Thus, extended endurance is theoretically possible, IF NOTHING FAILS. Experience with all aircraft suggests that MTBF will be the practical limiting factor on endurance and that the limit will be hours rather than days.

      Design constraints are an interesting topic. You're theoretically correct. Thus far, I'm not aware of any UAV design that incorporates shaping that would not have been possible with a manned aircraft.

      Regarding conjecture, that's half the military's job - to think about future possibilities. Hence, that's half of my job! Maybe the fun half!

  4. CNO ... Good comments, all valid.

    Re MTBF: Airborne platforms tend to do well once up and away. I would expect if one does not have to land, change pilot out, and T/O again, numbers will go up. T/O and landing on Aircraft carriers is exceptionally hard on airframes.

    Shaping: remove the need for the windscreen, remove the need to establish a "bubble" for the pilot to sit in, etc ...

    Conjecture: Easy to do, hard part is getting it right! Sure, job is to figure out what to build and buy, if we knew all the answers we would be out of jobs.

    Good discussion.

    1. AJF, it's interesting that many of the current UAVs have a "bubble-ish", canopy-like shape to them, anyway. I'm not sure why. Sensor housing or electronics, maybe?

      I wonder what detrimental impact a canopy has on stealth? I've never seen anything definitive on that.

      Regarding endurance and MTBF, if you dig through the various resources (and the military doesn't make it easy!) you quickly realize that we lose a LOT of UAVs on missions. Those aren't counted as mishaps so they're not recorded and investigated, at least not publicly. My strong suspicion from what I've been able to piece together is that many of those are due to mechanical/electrical/comm failures which is exactly what we're talking about. I think "unlimited" endurance is still very much a wish rather than a reality. A valid point, though, about take off and landing being the high risk actions.

      "... if we knew all the answers ..." ??!!! I'm giving the Navy all the answers! :)

    2. The bubble on larger UAVs houses a trainable SATCOM antenna.

      The cockpit and canopy can contribute significantly to an aircraft's RCS over certain aspects. The Raptor's canopy has a metallic coating to reflect certain frequencies, but YMMV, from what I understand. It's apparently a fairly complex problem to solve.

  5. I'm not sure if I've state on this particular blog (know I've done it some where). but my personal choice for a conversion to a drone controller would be the EA-6. With a 4-man crew, lots of endurance, and plenty of power and space for electronics, it just makes sense to me. A modified S-3 might work too. As far as bigger longer range cruise missiles, I've often wondered how far a cruise missile the size of a Trident II would go.

    Randall Rapp

    1. Randall, the drawback that I see to using an EA-6 is that if the control range is near line of sight, it puts a very vulnerable aircraft way too close to the action. What do you think?

  6. Since UCLASS is not a finalised concept I shall work through a couple of possibilities:

    Option 1: lets assume our UCLASS is a low end recon drone. Operating in low risk environments. Think Predator.

    My controller in this situation would look like an AWACS. No high end stealth required. An E-2D could do the job and do it well. We probably do not have enough, but that is another discussion.

    Option 2: a penetrating recon drone, now I am thinking something like a RQ-170.

    The Air force does not send in a penetrating controller to control its RQ-170's, so does the Navy need to? I would argue that most of the time an airborne controller could fly outside of the contested environment and still do its job.

    If my UAV cannot communicate with assets outside the contested airspace, it is unlikely that it would get better closer to the action,so I am either sending a manned aircraft or a UAV on a one way mission. So again best solution is still an E-2.

    Option 3 penetrating Strike UAV.

    Does it change anything from a mission control point of view, probably not.

    While building a Mini B-2, (think four seats for EW, AWACS, JSTAR functions, large enough carry enough fuel to be a penetrating tanker, possible bomber, so many possibilities) would be cool, but I not see the cash to do it.

    On the F-35, if we are talking about using it as a relay point, between a ship or aircraft out side hostile airspace, then I can see how it would work.It would not affect the pilots work load as it would just be passing through so to speak. This would leave the F-35 to continue its other missions, so I see no opportunity cost, the pilot would probably be total unaware of his planes involvement. Contact would not be continuous but I do not see that as a big problem.

    The other more controversial option in my opinion is that of a pilot controlling a swarm of UAV's.

    My struggle is actually what would you use this ability for, maybe I am missing something but I just can where you would use it. I either end up with too many planes for one pilot to control (need my Mini-B-2) or just a bomb truck of limited value as it would be tied to a manned aircraft and thus have all the limitations, which undoes the endurance advantage of the unmanned platform. I am prepared call this one marketing hype.


    1. We can do just about anything we want to in constructing a variety of unmanned stealthy airframes -- small, medium, and large. For myself, I think we need at least three versions, a smaller ISR prioritized stealthy version, a tanker, and a stealthy strike bird.

      But the question is, what will the Rules of Engagement demand for how reliable the data links must be inside a contested battlespace, and what demands will be placed upon artificial intelligence software working in some kind of cooperative fashion with offboard human operators?

      Various forms of pilot/operator AI software could be placed at critical nodes in the UCAV control network to shorten threat response latency, to enhance data link security, and to reduce data link bandwidth requirements.

      If the ROE demands that a human operator be somewhere in the loop at all times, no exceptions, there is no reason to think that a pilot flying an F-35 which also carries UCAV pilot/assistance AI software couldn't serve as the human control element in a situation where the comm links between the UCAV and the primary operators have been lost, and the F-35 pilot becomes the ROE's designated human operator of last resort.

    2. Mark, you may have missed the backdrop on this topic. The premise is that for these very long range, very high risk missions, UAVs won't have the AI software capability to autonomously function effectively. We just don't have that level of software now or it the foreseeable future. That being the case, we need a human controller. Hence, the F-35 idea ... and then the rest of the post flows from that.

    3. Scott, there's a major problem with an F-35 controller from a cost effectiveness perspective. If we have to use an F-35 to control than we've gone from a single unmanned, expensive UAV for a given mission, to a two-plane (UAV and F-35 pair), twice as expensive, MANNED (a man required to go out on the mission) aircraft. Our costs have doubled, we use twice as many aircraft, there's a significant opportunity cost, and it's still a manned mission. Ouch!

      If the UAV can't do the job by itself then we need to look very closely at the wisdom of trying to use the UAV for that role.

    4. CNO,

      Once again, this high level of AI is only required if the UCLASS has to find its own targets. Even then, in some cases, it doesn't have to be super complex. Depends on the mission.

      Automatic rerouting due to popup threats doesn't require AI. My phone can reroute me around accidents on the road now. The principles aren't that much different in the air. Given known emitter locations, iterate through flight paths until you find one that minimizes the chance of engagement.

      Where we have problems is with machine vision and having the aircraft understand what it's seeing.

      So you may not send a UCLASS out to autonomously find and kill enemy armor. But it could localize emissions from a SAM site or early warning radar and attack it automatically, assuming the radar continues to illuminate long enough to get target-quality coordinates.

      Of course if the enemy places the radar on top of an elementary school, the UCLASS probably won't be smart enough to abort.

    5. ComNavOps, I have to disagree. In my view, it is perfectly logical and appropriate to team manned an unmanned aircraft inside a high threat battlespace, and to divide their roles as technological and tactical realities might dictate within the context of a single active engagement; within the context of an extended conflict; and as tactics and technology evolve over decadal time frames.

      My own view of the F-35 is that going forward with this airplane is a monumental mistake. It is not by any stretch of the imagination a true 5th generation air superiority fighter. What is needed instead is a combination of a multi-mission F/A-XX plus a series of three or more UCAV variants with an appropriately divided set of mission responsibilities.

      But regardless of what I think, some number of F-35s are going to be acquired; and so it is perfectly logical and appropriate that if some number of them are in service -- however expensive they might be to acquire and operate -- they be given serious consideration for becoming a node within the UCAV operations control network, carrying a set of greater or lesser responsibilities as seems appropriate for use within the UCAV battlespace control network as it evolves through time.

    6. Scott, please don't misunderstand my position. I'm not saying that there is no possible scenario wherein manned and unmanned aircraft can't operately together in an overall positive manner. I'm saying that this particular scenario doesn't make sense for the reasons I've laid out.

  7. I’m not sure we are talking about F35 being a primary controller for a drone.

    Remember control of drones is primarily in their own hands, flying way points. So 90% of time, no input required. The rest of the time we have ground station input. Take-off and landing, and any update in-between.

    There is no reason at all that inputs and control cannot be handed from one control to another.
    I.e. from the ground station to an f35 and back to a ground station.

    F35 is about to become the entire US armada (give or take).

    Likely hood is that it may become useful for an F35 to have access to drones for intelligence or strike or anything else you can imagine, i.e. decoy.

    If we have any sense we will bring all drones under one common control architecture, and all significant platforms will have the ability to take at least partial control ( not take off and landing I would guess ) for their required use time before hanging back to a central ground stations.

    That way any asset can access any drone anywhere, just for the period you need. That's ships, subs, planes, helo's and ground troops.

    I know Apache is looking to do this now too.


  8. Actually having just written that. And thinking in terms of our ultimate stealth asset the Submarine. You DO NOT want a sub controlling a drone for the bulk of its launch and transit. It risks signals intercept.

    You just want minimal 'blip' input if required in terms of a course correction. Then you want the sub picking up the drone telemetry, this is passive, so low risk.

    Say you want to use the drone for recon or target confirmation then you hit it with a tomahawk \ harpoon etc etc etc.

    Wouldn’t this equally apply for F35 ?


    1. Ben, you may be missing the premise, here. We're not talking about a UAV casually roaming around, accumulating data, and sharing it out as requested. We're talking about a very long range, deep penetration strike into a very high risk environment (meaning strongly defended with extensive anti-air and ECM defenses). In this scenario, we won't be able to control the UAV from a gound site half way around the world. The UAV will be on its own. We're saying that the state of our autonomy software is insufficient for that level of self-determination (we don't even trust A2A BVR) when it comes to defensive flying, route selection, and target selection. Thus, we need a human controller, to some extent. And then the rest of the post flows from that ...

  9. Well I don't really think so.

    It wont take off in a contested environment, or is unlikely to do so.

    I think my point is that the drone, be handed from one asset to another along the path to achive the goal. Lets say strike.

    It is likely F35 could be the final link in this chain, particually in a highly contested zone both literally and ECM wise. And that due stealth and to AESA's special capabilities it is the best positioned to direct the final strike from relitivly short range, ( 150nm ? ) without exposure.

    But this control will be very short duration, before handing the drone back to other controllers. ( by setting a course back out to sea most likely, and leaving the drone to it, say until it is picked up by satcom \ GPS or a sea based asset )

    Right now we know when a drone is cut of from commands it "tries" to make its way home on INS guidance. So no change there.


    1. As noted in the post, the control distance is key to this discussion. In a heavily contested ECM environment, the control distance is likely to be near-line-of-sight. Your suggestion of 150 m is optimistic in the extreme. If you're right, then just about any platform can function as the controller since it will be so far removed from the point of action. However, if control is near-line-of-sight, then the controlling aircraft will be right in the heart of the action - hence, the suggestion to use an F-35 since nothing else will be survivable.

      Thus, one of the major arguments against this arrangement is that if the F-35 is already on top of the target anyway, it may as well carry and release the ordnance.

    2. CNO,

      Line of sight for a controller aircraft at 30,000 ft, when the controlled aircraft is at 10,000ft (for example) is over 300nm.

    3. There is absolutely no reason to believe we'll be capable of anything remotely approaching that in a broad spectrum jamming, heavy ECM environment. Would we allow an enemy to casually control aircraft against us from that distance? Not likely. Why would a peer allow us to do so?

      I think we'll be lucky to maintain viable control signals at 20 miles.

      Of course, if I'm wrong, then we don't need an F-35 to control. Any aircraft will suffice from 300 miles away.

      That kind of best case, wishful thinking is what's going to see us totally unprepared for real combat. Of course, all the military has to do is conduct an exercise in control against our own best ECM efforts and find out what the control range is - you know, assuming the UCLASS actually existed and the F-35 could control them!

    4. The effectiveness of jamming depends on not only the jammer characteristics, but also its positioning relative to the radios being jammed and the characteristics of the radios themselves. If the jammer can't position itself along, or close to, the line formed by the source and destination radios, the radios can use low sidelobe antennas, greater power, null steering or other techniques to mitigate jamming effectiveness.

      In other words, there won't be a generic, widespread,line of sight comm's no-go zone. Turning a jammer on is not the same as enabling a "cone of silence". There will be positions where enemy jamming is more effective and positions where it is less effective or not effective at all.

      In the case of China, 300nm will still be in the heart of the enemy IADS. Su-30s can reach out to a thousand miles from shore with AARs. Controller aircraft will still have to survive there.

    5. I would imagine we are talking about low probability of intercept, point to point AESA beam forming communications as we know F35’s is supposedly capable of.
      Now if you believe the blurb the AN\APG-81 effectively constructs the end waveform by building it from many smaller RF waves alternated at random frequencies to look like back ground radiation. It also notes jammed frequencies takes them out of its list and will simply construct the communication from other parts of the RF spectrum. IF you believe the blurb!
      Certainly theoretically possible.
      It should be stupendously difficult to detect and jam. You would need to jam a very wide spectrum. And this is going to be a problem for the enemy too.
      1] Anti-radiation Missiles.
      2] Their own comms \ radar wont work.
      I would imagine the F35 will be doing the targeting via SAR, so it’s likely to be aware that there is a gap in jamming at the target. ( By definition it won’t have been able to find the target if its jammed. )
      UCLASS with way point navigation will proceed towards target area, jamming will be largely irrelevant, F35 just takes control for the strike.
      F35 supposedly starts to become powerful when used in groups. I think it quite likely that a UCLASS may be handed from one F35 to another in a spread out formation to get the job done, this may well involve several targets in a sortie, B2 style.
      Pure Conjecture.
      But I do totally agree that due to pilot work load no F35 can be intended to control a drone for any length of time, in any detail and certainly not whilst under immediate threat.
      I do just hope that ( as I said before ) this is a common software patch, based largely on the ground station software. Burning HUGE budget developing this feature when we are so far away from this being a reality is mental !
      To my mind the whole gig doesn’t work with a predator or triton or firescout ?

  10. Ok, caveats out of the way
    This would be better with a two man.aircraft
    It wont be possible with $200mn "drones"
    It might not even be possible

    With ideas stolen from the Praxis Trilogy Pinace Concept and the Andromeda (S1E1-E12)

    A drone doesnt need to "piloted"
    Thats sort of the point, its self piloting.
    What it needs, is to be directed, ordered.

    A pack of 12 drones should be able to formation fly with an F35, and that formation altered between preset patterns, limited command sent by undetectable IR, UV, VL, sound,

    A "fully stealthed" F36 could lead in a pack of drones, which mount Radar, Jammers, IR, along with AAM, AGM ect.
    The pilot targets an enemy, and presses the fire button, it doesnt really matter where the missile actually comes from.

    1. That concept is fine. Of course, the weakness is that if the control aircraft is destroyed, the entire dozen UAVs are rendered killed.

    2. True, although they would fly home rather than "die", however its going to be significantly more survivable than current operations, more expendable bullet catcher if nothing else.

      No reason during war time a single fighter couldnt fly in hundreds of missiles, they can have targets he can over ride.

      And then you get lots of fun, like flying disposable drones without a shepard to distract and deplete enemy air defences.

      Not going to work with current costs, but doesnt require 24/7 piloting either


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