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One of the problems with the Air Force’s drone fleet? There aren’t enough humans to operate the flying robots. And it’s contributing to a surprising Air Force decision to buy fewer drones — even as its own budget plan calls for the robots to get much busier.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced weeks ago that the armed, unmanned Predators and Reapers will fly more often in the coming few years, going up to 65 combat air patrols, or CAPs — teams of up to four flying robots — “with a surge capacity of 85.” That’s up from 61 today. But the Air Force’s budget figures, released on Monday, show that the flyboys will slow down their drone purchases, rather than increase them.
Under last year’s defense budget, the Air Force bought 48 Reapers, the bigger, faster, more lethal descendant of the Predator. (The Air Force stopped buying Predators in 2010.) In the proposed budget, the Air Force wants to buy half as many — 24 armed, spying drones. And its budget chief, Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton Jr., was unsure when the service will start buying the next-generation, jet-powered, stealthy Avenger drone in earnest.
There are a couple reasons for the shift. One is that there aren’t enough airmen who know how to remotely pilot the things. Another is that the Air Force says it can do more stuff with fewer drones. And of course, there’s the budget crunch.
“It turned out, when the [Pentagon's Joint Requirements Oversight Council] established this past year the requirement of 65 CAPs, we determined we could meet that with this [reduced] production rate,” Bolton told Danger Room during a Monday afternoon briefing.
After the briefing, Brig. Gen. Les Kodlick, the Air Force’s public-affairs chief, told Danger Room that the reduced Reaper purchase has to do with flesh-and-blood concerns — namely a lack of airmen trained to fly the drones and analyze the data the robots collect.
Well, sort of, clarifies Jennifer Cassidy, an Air Force spokeswoman. “Manning was a consideration in reducing the MQ-9 Reaper purchases for [the next fiscal year], but not the only consideration,” Cassidy emails Danger Room. “The MQ-9 crew production rate and the attrition rate of the [Predator] allowed the reduction of MQ-9 purchases [next year] without impact to the Air Force ramp-up to 65 CAPs.”
But the Air Force has acknowledged it’s got a people problem with its unpeopled planes. “Our No. 1 manning problem in the Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, the vice chief of staff, recently told the Los Angeles Times.
In recent years, the Air Force relaxed its restrictions on who can fly its drones, in order to make up the shortfall; there are pilots now flying Reapers who have never grabbed the throttle of a traditional aircraft. But it hasn’t been enough. Contractors are brought in to the drone bases to remotely pilot the Predators and Reapers, as well as to help analyze the endless hours of full-motion video they collect. Thousands of airmen have been shifted into new jobs, in order to better scour all the video.
Absent a big crash program to train up new drone experts– or switch to the Army’s preferred method of using pasty, video-gaming teenagers to pilot their robot planes — the manpower problem is likely to get worse. In the next few years, the sensor and video packages carried by Air Force drones are going to get more sophisticated, like when the panopticon Gorgon Stare spy suite comes online. And the Air Force will cut 9,900 personnel over the next year, although it’s unclear what specialties the cashiered airmen will have performed.
When top Pentagon officials like former Defense Secretary Bob Gates browbeat the Air Force into accepting 65 unmanned CAPs, top service officials complained that there was no formal “requirement” for the drones — no way of knowing when it had satisfied the other services’ need for robotic eyes in the sky. Even drone-backers at the top of the Air Force thought all those patrols were overkill. So it’s not surprising that they chose to slow the rate of drone buys, when budgets got tight.
Instead, the Air Force’s priority future upgrades and purchases are all in manned planes. Upgrading the software on the F-22 Raptor, even as it’s got big problems with its oxygen systems. Enhancing the radar on F-15s. Extending the service life of F-16s. Buying 19 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, even as they develop 13 expensive new flaws. An arguable exception is that the service’s desired next-generation long range bomber won’t always be piloted by a human being; it’s “optionally manned,” as the Air Force calls it.
But a recent congressional study obtained by Danger Room explains the Air Force’s preference for manned planes. About 40 percent of the air fleet is robotic. Yet over 90 percent of the Air Force’s procurement money is spent on planes with a human in the cockpit. Of course, part of the allure of drones is that they are cheap. And obviously, drones are the weapon of choice for the Obama administration’s Shadow Wars against terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Asked by Danger Room, Bolton said that the new budget figures “should not” be interpreted as a sign that the Air Force prefers its manned planes.
“This budget really is a manifestation of the strategy that was laid out by Secretary Panetta on the 26th of January,” Bolton said. “And so our real challenge within this budget was to first determine how we could build a budget that could implement that strategy, and then secondly, how could we do that within the necessary physical constraints as based upon the guidance of the Budget Control Act passed to us by [the White House].”
Except Panetta was clear that day that the Air Force would “provide unmanned capabilities through their operators as well” — and would increase its Predator and Reaper flights. The robots are still waiting for the humans to catch up.
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The U.S. Air Force’s plan to acquire a next-generation, stealthy, precision-attack MQ-X unmanned aerial system has a candidate with the first flight of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ extended second variant of its jet-powered Predator C Avenger.
The closely held flight took place Jan. 12 at the company’s Palmdale, Calif., facility. USAF, in its 2025 road map, has stated a preference for a stealth signature (but not very low observability) and long endurance (the latest Avenger can fly for 16 hr.). Predator C offers a serpentine inlet for its Pratt & Whitney engine and a ducted exhaust to shield the aircraft’s heat signature.
General Atomics is building four Avenger Cs. Starting with the second aircraft, the fuselage was extended 4 ft. for additional fuel capacity. A third aircraft is expected to fly this summer followed by the fourth by early next year.
“The Air force wants the MQ-X to operate and survive in a contested or degraded operational environment,” says Chris Pehrson, the company’s director of strategic development.
That means that competitors might substitute electronic attack and electronic warfare for some of the stealth capability. Any design would combine reduced signature, jamming self-protection and long-range surveillance.
“The kind of sensors you put on a platform can allow a greater standoff distance by looking deeper into enemy territory,” the official says. “Avenger is a jet-powered UAV, so it can fly faster and respond more quickly to time-sensitive targets and threats.”
General Atomics is pushing the flight envelope of Avenger beyond 400 kt., to almost twice the speed of the turboprop-powered, workhorse MQ-9 Reaper. It will not be highly maneuverable because it’s not a fighter, nor will it have the speed to keep up with a package of strike aircraft.
“But the speed does allow it to transit to a target area or react to pop-up threats faster,” Pehrson says. “You are looking at a trade space of endurance, altitude, speed and agility. The Avenger has wings like a powered glider so it can operate at about 50,000-55,000 feet. That’s not as high as a U-2, but it will be above most of the traffic.”
Sensors of interest for the Avenger include the Raytheon surveillance ball that is on the Reaper now and multi-spectral sensors like those on the U-2 that can broaden the amount of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be monitored for targeting and reconnaissance.
Various Air Force and Navy officials have indicated that Raytheon’s jamming variant of the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD-J) is being considered as a standoff electronic attack capability for the Avenger and other aircraft involved in suppressing air defenses.
“We see both suppression and destruction of enemy air defense applications for this platform,” Pehrson says. “It could be equipped with electronic jammers and anti-radiation missiles as one option. Right now, we’re looking at about 3,000 pounds internal payload and about 3,000 pounds on external, wing-mounted hard points.”
Several hundred additional pounds of payload can be carried in the forward electronics bay. In total, it’s about a ton more than the Reaper can carry. To help cut down on the amount of data that has to be transmitted to ground stations, there are plans to do machine processing on board.
“We like to give the operator or analyst the fused, correlated, real-time situational awareness with all the sensors that we possibly can,” Pehrson says. “If you have a ground moving target indicator on the radar, you want to know with high confidence that it’s the same object you are looking at with your electro-optical or infrared sensor. If it’s also giving off a signals signature, that’s all going to be on a single display.”
The Avenger is expected to cost $15-18 million for the baseline aircraft, including sensors.
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EDWARDS AFB, Calif. — A new U.S. Air Force X-plane designated X-56A will explore active control technology for potential use in future high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) reconnaissance aircraft.
Designed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the X-56A flying wing will also later be flown by NASA, and is an innovative modular unmanned air vehicle designed to test active flutter suppression and gust load alleviation. These technologies are considered vital for the successful development of the slender, lightweight, high-aspect-ratio wings that could be used by future transports as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance UAVs.
Formerly dubbed the Multi-Use Technology Testbed (MUTT), the UAV will test to the edge of the flight envelope where flutter occurs. Flutter is the potentially catastrophic dynamic coupling that can occur between the elastic motion of the wing and the aerodynamic loads acting on it. If a test goes too far and a wing fails in flight, the X-56A is fitted with a fuselage-mounted ballistic parachute recovery system.
Powered by twin JetCat P240 turbojets, and configured for easy wing replacement, the aircraft will be tested with stiff wings as well as multiple sets of flexible wings. The design also includes a hard point on the center upper deck of the aft fuselage that can either be adapted to house a third engine or the boom for a joined wing, thereby enabling testing of more advanced aerodynamic concepts.
The 28-ft.-span vehicle is the key test asset for the Air Force Research Laboratory-led Multi-utility Aeroelastic Demonstration Program (MAD). This is contributing to AFRL’s follow-on work to SensorCraft, a class of HALE vehicles intended for surveillance as well as telecommunication relay and environmental sensing. Following Air Force flight tests, the X-56A will be used by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center for further work also aimed at lightweight structures and advanced technology for future low-emissions transport aircraft.
AFRL MAD Program Manager Pete Flick says the SensorCraft studies “led us to very different configurations that are inherently more flexible with high-aspect-ratio wings. Gust-load alleviation and flutter suppression are two key technologies we needed to pursue, and there was no testbed out there where we could test active flutter suppression without a lot of risk. So we went out to develop a vehicle specifically for that purpose. So that’s what motivated AFRL, and to work with NASA, which has a similar interest in pursuing configurations for future aircraft.”
The NASA flights will be conducted under the subsonic fixed-wing project and will help to develop guidelines and methodology for active dynamic structural control as well as provide flight-validated aircraft models for academia. The aeroelastic and lightweight structures research will also contribute toward long-range planning for the proposed X-54 low-boom supersonic demonstrator program.
Displaying clear design heritage from previous Lockheed SensorCraft concepts as well as flying wing designs including the P-175 Polecat, RQ-170 and DarkStar UAVs, the X-56A is characterized by a cranked delta planform. The flight-test package will include two identical center bodies measuring 7.5 ft. long, as well as four sets of constant-chord wings. One set will be stiff for baseline flight tests, as well as follow-on research, while the remaining three will be identical flexible wings made with lighter skin material for flutter testing.
The X-56A is in final assembly at GFMI Aerospace and Defense, a Fountain Valley, Calif.-based engineering company specializing in prototype and mockup development. The aircraft is currently due to be delivered to Lockheed Martin in late April and will be transported to Edwards AFB in June. Flights with the 452nd Flight Test Squadron, part of the 412th Test Wing, will begin at the North Base in July and continue through September. Following an approximately 25-hr.-long flight test effort, the X-56A is expected to transfer to NASA by year’s end.
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An agreement by Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and New Zealand to become subscribers to the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) broadband communications network has prompted the U.S. Air Force to exercise an option for Boeing to build a ninth spacecraft.
With their $377 million contract, the five nations join Australia, which funded WGS-6 in 2008, as members of the Air Force WGS team.
WGS-9 is the third spacecraft in a follow-on contract series that relies on Block II technology. Block II is distinguished by its switchable radio-frequency bypass system, which enables transmission of airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance imagery data at three times Block I rates. All of the spacecraft are derived from Boeing’s commercial 702 satellite bus.
Boeing was informed in December to proceed with WGS-8; the WGS-9 authorization means the company will have five Wideband Global Satcoms under construction at its El Segundo, Calif., factory.
The eighth and ninth spacecraft have a combined value of $673 million and are part of a $1.09 billion contract modification the Air Force announced last September.
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The Obama administration has begun consulting Congress on intention to sell four RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 surveillance planes to South Korea.
South Korea has been under pressure to boost surveillance capabilities over North Korea after two attacks against it killed 50 people last year, driving tensions on the Korean peninsula to the highest levels in decades.
Northrop Grumman, which builds the high-flying, long-endurance airframe said Seoul was considering buying four RQ-4 Global Hawk “Block 30″ drones, which can carry intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payloads.
There was no immediate word on when formal notification of a proposed sale might take place, nor on the potential overall value. Deliveries could take place in 2014 and 2015 if a government-to-government deal is signed this year, Gemma Loochkartt, a company spokeswoman, said by email on Wednesday.
The RQ-4 Block 30 airframes sell for roughly $30 million apiece, not including their payloads. The State Department declined to comment pending formal notification of a proposed Global Hawk sale to Congress.The U.S. Air Force, which would broker the deal, and South Korea’s embassy in Washington also had no immediate comment.
An official at the South Korean Defense Ministry’s procurement agency said it remains interested in acquiring the aircraft system and is waiting for Washington to have a formal go-ahead to negotiate the sale.
“Our interest is based on the operational need of our military,” the official said.
The head of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration Noh Dae-lae had earlier expressed concern about the system’s reliability after reports about the aircraft’s technical shortfalls in May.
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The U.S. Air Force has lifted a two-week-old flight ban that had grounded the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, following a power problem on a plane at Edwards Air Force Base in California. While the probe continues, engineers determined that it is safe to resume test flights, said Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office.
Flight operations will resume for the rest of the planes, which are based at Edwards and at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.However, two F-35s based at Eglin in Florida will remain grounded because they lack the monitoring systems used in developmental test aircraft that can detect any problems in flight.
The F-35 is the Pentagon’s biggest procurement program at a planned $382 billion to buy 2,457 of the stealth F-35 jets in different versions for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The F-35 may be a target for budget cuts as the Pentagon is pressed to help lower the federal deficit. The Defense Department will need to find at least $325 billion in cuts over the next 10 years in the first phase of a $2.4 trillion deficit- reduction agreement approved by Congress. Another round of $500 billion in defense cuts may be imposed if Congress fails to approve enough budget savings in other areas.
The Air Force has also grounded Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor, the military’s most advanced fighter, because of reported problems with the plane’s system for supplying oxygen to the pilot. The flight ban on the F-22, in effect since May, remains until an investigation is completed in a few months, said Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel John Haynes.
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The South Korean air force rates all of the Western competitors for its F-X Phase 3 fighter program, including the F-35 Lightning, as capable of meeting the in-service date of 2016, an assessment that appears to raise the chances of the F-35 Lockheed Martin aircraft.
The Korean air force said in an unpublished briefing paper that the Eurofighter Typhoon is in service and can therefore meet the schedule. Although it notes that the F-35 and the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle are not fully developed, the air force believes they can be ready in time.
That judgment is less important for the F-15SE than for the F-35. But for the Lightning the air force’s assessment seems to sweep aside concerns that, while the stealth fighter is especially well suited to the air-to-ground part of the F-X Phase 3 requirement, its repeatedly delayed development schedule has become uncomfortably tight for South Korea’s needs.
The U.S. Air Force does not expect its F-35As to be operational until 2018. Its definition of initial operational capability is more demanding than South Korea’s, but the U.S. schedule offers little reassurance for potential buyers that would need the aircraft earlier.
Even if the South Korean air force’s assessment is not realistic, the expression of that view at least means that the service is willing to proceed as if the F-35 complies fully with its requirements.
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An $8.4 million U.S. Air Force contract has been awarded to BAE Systems to provide crashworthy seats for C-130 aircraft. The specially designed seats will help protect crewmembers in the event of mishaps or hard landings. The company will develop, test, and install as many as 88 seat systems to enhance the survivability of the crew during normal, emergency, and combat operations.
This work builds on BAE Systems’ strong history of performance in support of the C-130 community. The company has designed, supported, and completed more than 200 modifications to C-130 variants over the past 12 years.
The contract was awarded by the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. The work will be conducted at BAE Systems operations in Crestview, Florida; Mojave, California; and Phoenix, Arizona.
Gordon Eldridge, vice president and general manager of Aerospace Solutions at BAE Systems Support Solutions, said, “This important readiness and sustainment contract will provide a cost-effective, rapidly deployable solution for the warfighter.” He also said, “This win also builds on our support to the Tactical Airlift Division, a key customer at the Air Logistics Center.”
The new seat systems are needed by the Air Force to ensure the safety of the aircrew during emergencies. The ability of the crew to survive unhurt, facilitated by crashworthy seats, is paramount during extreme landing situations and for quick evacuations from the aircraft.
BAE Systems Support Solutions provides a range of services to meet needs in readiness and sustainment and operational support across the land, aviation, maritime, and C4ISR domains, supporting the U.S. Department of Defense and federal agencies. Support Solutions is also a leading non-nuclear ship repair, modernization, and conversion company, serving the U.S. Navy and other maritime customers.
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Engineers with the 418th Flight Test Squadron are currently testing a C-130H3 cargo plane equipped with Hamilton Sundstrand NP 2000 propellers.The new eight-bladed composite propellers are shaped to provide additional thrust in the takeoff and low airspeed range while using the current C-130 engines.
Regular C-130 “legacy” planes use four-blade propellers. With eight blades, the NP 2000 props are designed to perform with more power and efficiency.
“A major limitation propellers have is the wave drag generated by shockwaves when the propeller tips go supersonic,” said Dustin Marschik, a 418th FTS performance and flying qualities engineer. ”Newer propeller designs aim to reduce this wave drag, which improves efficiency and performance. The NP 2000 blade design incorporates a more efficient airfoil design, which theoretically will lead to improved performance in the takeoff and climb out phases of flight.
“The eight-bladed props are much more efficiently designed and utilize modern design and manufacturing methods which aim to optimize twist and blade sweep to improve performance,” Mr. Marschik said.
Computer simulation and the composite materials that make up the blades help engineers optimize the blade angle and twists to make the propeller faster and better.
“It is designed specifically for the LC-130 mission in Antarctica,” said Maj. C.B. Cain, a C-130 flight commander. “Right now, they use these jet-assisted takeoff bottles to help them takeoff to get to about a 60-knot takeoff range. If this propeller does what it is supposed to do, then it would produce additional thrust and reduce the need for those JATO bottles, or eliminate them completely.”
Major Cain said test data still needs to be analyzed, but preliminary testing has shown that the eight-bladed NP 2000 propeller provides noticeable drag on the free-roll landing tests and the C-130H3 seems to fly smoother.
He said with less vibration, there is less wear and tear on the propeller, which can also be an added benefit.
“Instead of four similar airfoil blades pounding around up there, you have these eight highly tuned blades that make it smoother with less vibration,” Major Cain said. “From a maintainability standpoint, you can change one blade at a time. On the legacy four-blade C-130, you have to change out the whole prop.”
This flight testing is a continuation of a process to improve the capability of the Air Force’s workhorse C-130 fleet. The C-130J “Super” Hercules already employs a six-bladed composite propeller.
Once all the data is assessed, and if Air Force officials see a solid benefit of the NP 2000, certain C-130s may get a new and improved upgrade in the future.
- US Air Force