An unmanned combat aircraft has been built for the British military is to undergo its first ever test flight later this year. The tests on Taranis, which is powered by a Rolls-Royce Adour 951 engine used on Hawk training jets, will see it flying a simulated mission where it must automatically avoid unexpected threats such as ground to air missiles and seek out potential targets.
[April 2 2013]
Currently, the Air Force has 258 Predators and Reapers staffing 60 CAPs. There are almost 300 Reapers still on order, largely to replace the Predators.
But under the Pacific pivot ordered by the Obama administration in 2011, ISR gurus grapple with surveillance in places where the U.S. does not control the skies. The acronym du jour is A2/AD, for anti-access/area denial: the use of advanced weapons to keep U.S. aircraft and warships at bay.
Take North Korea.
“If we fly a Predator over their territory, they may see it as an act of war and they’ll take it down,” said Joe Detrani, a former envoy for talks with Pyongyang, and who oversaw intelligence collection over North Korea when he was at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
U.S. commanders are acutely aware of this.
“We are now shifting to a theater where there’s an adversary out there who’s going to have a vote on whether I have that staring eye over the battlefield 24/7/365,” Gen. Mike Hostage, who leads the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, told a think tank audience last year. “And I’m pretty certain they’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Hostage said in the speech that he has more UAVs than he needs.
“The fleet I’ve built up — and I’m still being prodded to build up to — is not relevant in that new theater,” he said.
A pilot himself, the general told the audience about an incident in which he was tracking a wanted man from the left seat of an MC-12.
“So we’re orbiting this village for about two hours waiting for this one dirtbag we’d been following to emerge,” when he saw an American convoy moving through his area, he said. The convoy was being protected by a helicopter, which spotted the man’s SUV. So we call the helicopter team, tell them to do an orbit. You know, stop, abort their attack.”
He says that prevented a major problem. A UAV, he said, wouldn’t have gotten the job done. Officials with General Atomics, which makes the Predator and Reaper, say they want to ensure that the aircraft can contribute in such areas.
“We are very interested in making sure the MQ-9 stays relevant for the strategic environment, particularly in the Pacific region. Part of that is survivability,” said Chris Pehrson, who directs strategic development for the company. “Making sure it can operate in an A2/AD environment.”