The U.S. Air Force is planning to field low-cost, unmanned “disposable” warplanes in the near future, designed to complement manned aircraft in the aerial battlefield. Unmanned aircraft can be purchased in greater numbers, growing the size of the Air Force’s tactical aircraft fleets, and can be sent on missions too hazardous for manned aircraft.
Air Force officials, in comments made at the 2019 Defense News conference, stated that one of the technologies it was investing it was “low-cost, single use aircraft”. Fighter Jets World quotes Stephen Trimble, Defense Editor at Aviation Week & Space Technology on Twitter saying the Air Force now uses the term “reusable” and “disposable” when talking about the unmanned aircraft.
The U.S. Air Force has large fleets of unmanned aircraft, primarily those for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions—think the MQ-9 Reaper and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Reaper has some combat capability, with the ability to carry Hellfire anti-tank missiles, GPS-guided bombs, and laser guided bombs. The service has yet fielded a stealthy warplane capable of flying combat missions against high-tech enemies.
That’s about to change. The rise of the Chinese and Russian armed forces is causing the Pentagon to refocus on so-called big power wars. The fighters, bombers, and other aircraft meant to fight those wars, however, are extremely expensive: a F-35A Joint Strike Fighter costs $89.5 million each with a cost per flying hour of $44,000. The new B-21 Raider bomber will cost about $640 million in today’s dollars each.
Unmanned aircraft offer a way out of the growing cost spiral. The Air Force is currently funding development of the XQ-58A Valkyrie, a stealthy, subsonic unmanned aircraft with a payload of 600 pounds and a range of 1,500 nautical miles (1,726 miles). Lacking a life support system for the pilot, advanced electronics, and the durability to fly for 12,000 hours, a drone like Valkyrie is expected to cost just $3 million each. That would enable the Air Force to buy 30 Valkyries for the cost of one F-35.
A combat drone could become a force multiplier for manned aircraft. A F-35A, F-22 Raptor, or even B-21 Raider bomber could someday control several unmanned escorts, each with a different mission and equipment set. Drones accompanying fighters could search for manned enemy warplanes, then act as bait for an aerial ambush or engage the enemy with missiles. Drones accompanying bombers could map out the enemy’s air defense grid, jam enemy communications and radars, and seek out and destroy enemy radars and surface to air missile sites-- improving the bomber’s chances of escaping detection. Finally, a drone could act as a decoy for any manned plane, sacrificing itself.
Unmanned systems offer a way for the Air Force—not to mention the other services—the ability to buy back numbers, getting more airframes for the same amount of money while also getting all the flexibility of an airplane that doesn’t necessarily need to return home.