An interview with Dr. Michael S. Francis, director of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program
The Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems Office in Arlington, Va., is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) activity charged with leading the Department of Defense effort to develop and demonstrate a Joint Unmanned Combat Air System. Francis started DARPA's Unmanned Tactical Aircraft program in 1994, the precursor to today's Joint Unmanned Combat Air System program. In 1997, he retired from the U.S. Air Force as a Colonel. He is a winner of the 1995 National Air and Space Museum Trophy and the Aviation Week & Space Technology Laurels Award.
Q.What aircraft are being developed under the J-UCAS Program? Is there more than one type of plane in development?
A. The Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program is a joint DARPA/Air Force/Navy effort to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility, and operational value of a networked system of high-performance, weaponized unmanned air vehicles to effectively and affordably prosecute 21st century combat missions, including Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), electronic attack, surveillance, and precision strike within the emerging global command and control architecture.
Specifically, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are each developing demonstrator air vehicles, designated X-45C and X-47B respectively, that will be used in an early operational assessment of system capabilities beginning in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 timeframe. Both families of air vehicles are expected to be utilized throughout the demonstration and operational assessment phases of the program. Based on the results of the operational assessment, the Air Force and the Navy will decide whether to field these systems or continue development of derivative systems.
The X-45C and X-47B will be able to interoperate with each other and with other combat elements on the Global Information Grid through a Common Operating System (COS), which will be developed jointly by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other industry contributors in a collaborative arrangement. The COS consists of the algorithms, software, and network services that provide for command and control, communications management, mission planning and execution, much of the interactive autonomy, the human systems interface, and many other functions that "reach beyond the platforms."
Q.How much funding has the DOD allotted for the J-UCAS program?
A. The FY2004–FY2009 Budget for J-UCAS is more than $4 billion.
Q.What are the capabilities of J-UCAS compared to other UAVs?
A. Unlike other UAVs, the J-UCAS is a networked system of air vehicles designed to operate cooperatively in groups using the COS to ensure the necessary levels of collaboration and synchronization during mission execution. This construct will allow seamless control of multiple vehicles (including mixed packages of X-45 and X-47 and/or Air Force and Navy variants) by a single control station. J-UCAS is being designed to operate in extremely hazardous threat environments, countering complex air defense networks deep in denied enemy territory. Through collaboration, the overall effectiveness of the system is greater than that provided by the sum of the individual vehicles performing independently, by increasing the capabilities within all elements of the "kill chain" and decreasing the overall reaction time of the system.
J-UCAS is being designed to provide global power projection, including air vehicles that are in-flight refuelable and designed for multiple basing options, including shipboard environments. J-UCAS air vehicles are being designed to fly at high subsonic speeds (Mach 0.8+) and at altitudes exceeding 35,000 feet. This capability, coupled with the need for global operations, requires that J-UCAS operate in the heart of the civil airspace, operating between the low-flying tactical UAVs and the 65,000-feet-plus endurance RQ-4A Global Hawk platform.
Q.How much will J-UCAS be controlled remotely vs. autonomous operations?
A. J-UCAS will be capable of operating in highly autonomous fashion, an attribute needed for both long-distance remote operations and for successful mission execution in combat environs that inhibit communications quality and effectiveness. That said, the system is being designed to permit "flexible human intervention" to allow for operator involvement when necessary or preferred. In situations constrained by specific rules of engagement — for example, lethal use of force — human involvement is required to provide the necessary weapons authorization.
With respect to the operator interface, the J-UCAS program is investigating the optimal approach to integrating the human crew. The first generation of UAVs took the approach of moving the cockpit to the ground — quite literally. Global Hawk infused higher levels of autonomy, but didn't expand the number of UAVs to the levels that we project. Early studies and experiments have suggested that we can control multiple UCAVs with a single operator; that may or may not be the right answer. Our most mature concepts for unmanned platform control come from the methods of control used for space systems, suggesting a very different approach. In those systems, satellite health/status is monitored by one crew, payload operations conducted by another, and trajectory management provided by yet a third (with a healthy assist from Kepplerian physics). We expect that the unique aspects of the J-UCAS system and its operational needs may lead us to a solution that adopts elements of several of these approaches, and we are exploring the options.
Q.What prime contractors involved and what are their responsibilities?
A. Boeing is currently flight-testing the X-45A technology demonstrator and is developing the X-45C family of vehicles. Northrop Grumman Corp. developed the X-47A and is now designing the larger X-47B. The program will employ these aircraft to explore a range of missions projected for the system, as well as operations in both land-based and carrier environments.
A third program element, the Common Operating System (COS), will team the air-vehicle primes with an "integrator/broker" in a consortium-like business arrangement. Other technology contributors from the community will participate in this effort, as well. The COS is a planned spiral development in which the air-vehicle primes compete for and provide specific functional capabilities, along with other contributors. The primes also retain the responsibility to integrate the COS into their air-vehicle designs. The J-UCAS Office has issued a solicitation for the COS integrator/broker, see www1.eps.gov/spg/ODA/DARPA/CMO/PS04%2D04/listing.html on FedBizOpps.
Q.How much commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology is being implemented in the design of J-UCAS?
A. Very little COTS hardware is planned. Both contractors are using nondevelopmental engines, landing gear, actuators, and sensors, but few commercial items. With respect to the Common Operating System, however, a significant portion of the software could be COTS.
Q.When will the first J-UCAS vehicles be fielded?
A. J-UCAS will produce X-vehicles. These unique, first-of-breed platforms will be used in the Operational Assessment, expected to begin in FY2007. After initial testing and operational exploration, the Services may elect to initiate an abbreviated System Development and Demonstration (SDD) program, or begin some initial limited production in order to get more field experience with this revolutionary new capability. In any event, it would most likely be sometime after 2010.
Q.What technology has been added to the UCAV to prevent jamming of communications?
A. J-UCAS will exploit multiple communications options to ensure mission accomplishment. A robust, secure satellite communications capability will be used to ensure uncompromised control of the systems at all times. Interplatform communications will be highly secure. Since the vehicles will individually and collectively be capable of highly autonomous operation, the minimum communications requirements between platform(s) and crew, including throughput, continuity, and bandwidth, appear readily achievable. This architecture will allow the air vehicles to continue to prosecute the mission under adverse circumstances.
Q.Will multiple J-UCAS aircraft fly in formation in squadrons, such as hunter packs deployed over a battlefield?
A. J-UCAS air vehicles are envisioned to operate in groups dictated by the specific nature of the mission at hand. The number of vehicles, geographic dispersal, and method of operation, including tactics, will be driven by mission specifics, especially the nature of the projected threat. The vehicles may operate largely autonomously until authorization of the use of force is required.
Q.How long before J-UCAS will be able to engage enemy fighters in combat?
A. J-UCAS is being developed specifically to find and attack ground/surface targets. However, once the feasibility of this transformational weapon system is established, additional missions could be studied and explored for future unmanned systems.