Sunday, November 07, 2010

So you think high performance UAVs are new???

If you're a UAV fanatic and believe that they'll replace manned aircraft, then look at this and weep softly in the corner...
Under a classified CIA-sponsored project known as Tagboard, Lockheed developed the unmanned D-21 high-speed, high altitude reconnaissance drone. A modified, two-seat A-12 (redesignated M-21 for "mother" and carrying a reverse of the normal -12 designation) aircraft carried the D-21 (D for "daughter") aloft where the drone's ramjet engine would be ignited as it separated from the mothership at high Mach speeds. The first flight of the D-21/M-21 combination took place on 22 December 1964, but the first D-21 release from an M-21 did not occur until 5 March 1966. Two more launches were successful, but on 30 July 1966, a D-21 collided with the M-21 after release, destroying both aircraft and resulting in the death of one of the M-12's crew members. No further piggyback launches were attempted. A new launch system was then developed using a modified B-52H aircraft as the carrier. The D-21 program was cancelled in 1971 and declassifed seveal years later. The nose and tail cones on the D-21 in this image were only used during early flight tests.


  1. Whilst drones are nothing new as you rightly point out, what is new is the ability for them to act so autonomously thanks to ever increasing computer processing power. Similar advances in sensors have also helped.

  2. let me ask you this Grim....

    where do i go to get the loss rates for UAVs in Afghanistan and Iraq????

    i don't know, and i've been looking like crazy. my thinking is that UAVs are expensive, not as reliable as manned aircraft and are not as short i think that they are a loss leader when it comes to our military's budget.

  3. what about their ability to loiter autonomously whilst providing intel for long periods of time? surely that's gotta count for something, or the smaller portable UAVs?

  4. that does count for something but does it require UAVs that rival the F-16 in size? does it require UAVs that costs just a bit less than a manned fighter?

    if it doesn't then the current track that we're on is wrong.

    besides...we've only operated UAVs in benign environments...what happens when the bad guys have the ability to shoot down these loitering high altitude UAVs????

    what happens when you start building them with secret material or have valuable payloads that if recovered by the enemy and reverse engineered could provide a use to them??? then you have men either flying to recover or destroy them...

    i just don't think the big ones are cost effective.

  5. yeah i see your point, what about going the way of the LEMV for more benign evironments where the enemy doesn't have significant AA capability?

  6. LEMV's....

    lets see....


    easier to operate....

    just as effective....

    yeah...thats worth a true.

  7. Hmm yes Sol I agree that loss rates were pretty high in Iraq and Afghanistan, not exactly sure on the numbers but the British have already lost 1 of 3 Reapers bought to engine failure, but remember these were systems that were largely rushed into service simply to serve the needs of those warzones. Predator's would take a pounding in higher threat environment. I wouldn't support funding them really after a pull out from Afghan in the next few years in their current role, but the persistent ISR and rapid strike capability they provide is valuable and should be continued in some form. Some issues are being resolved, for example some of the biggest issues with Reapers are engine failure, loss of comms, and landing accidents. If you look at some of the developmental systems this is overcome by increasing autonomous ability, including autonomous landing, and addition of 2 engines. I'd point the developmental BAE Mantis being a good way to continue to have those useful capabilities in low and medium threat environments without the excessive cost of alternatives (UAVs are much cheaper to build and operate than a fighter).

    The other problems start to be rectified with the next generation of strike UCAVs that are supposed to come online over the next decade (X47, Taranis, Neuron etc). These are essentially designed to fly in the strike and SEAD role which are the most dangerous roles fighter does. In that respect it makes it cheaper and safer to fly a UCAV against an S300 battery than it is to send an F15. UCAVs can also be made more survivable in this respect because stealth can be more easily achieved than on a manned fighter. They are also just as mission effective in the role.

    I wouldn't take a UCAV over a manned fighter in some situations though, so they definitely still have a large role to play. I'd be much happier having a manned fighter in the CAS role most of the time for example, and i'm not convinced that the technology is advanced enough for air combat yet, so i'd obviously keep most funding on manned aircraft for the foreseeable future. However the British example has been quite innovative in this field. BAE systems and a group of other firms have managed to build up an impressive selection of UAVs/UCAVs over the last decade with only small amounts of public funding (microscopic compared to fighter funding) and continual improvement and innovation. This means that they've managed to position themselves ready to make a killing when the UK decides it does want more of these systems in theatre without having to beg for funds (which would also mean the govt. taking money out of manned fighter projects that BAE is also heavily involved in).

    I hope I covered most of your questions there. If not let me know, i'm not quite awake yet after 48 hours on exercises.


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