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Unmanned tactical aircraft not on the horizon

Gen.: Unmanned tactical aircraft not on horizon
BY: John T. Bennett , Air Force Times


Although the military has fielded many new unmanned aircraft in recent years, the Pentagon is far from sending the last manned war plane into combat, Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula said Thursday.

“We haven’t even seen the horizon yet” on the last manned tactical aircraft, Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, said during taping of a primetime edition of “This Week in Defense News” at the Newseum in Washington.

The episode, which focuses on the future of unmanned military platforms, will air in the Washington area on WUSA (channel 9) at 9 p.m. next Tuesday. It will also be available online. “This Week in Defense News” airs Sunday mornings on WUSA.

As the defense community debates the future of combat tactical aviation, Deptula said during the taping that any possible fielding of a fleet of totally unmanned — and even totally autonomous — combat planes is many years away.

That’s because there is no sensor package capable of “360-degree situational awareness that can process information” and decide on how to act upon it better than the human brain, he said.

Vice Adm. Jack Dorsett, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance and the director of naval intelligence, said the sea service “will walk our way into” unmanned tactical aircraft because “there are some significant challenges ahead.”

The Navy continues “early stages” of tests on its X-47B unmanned combat aircraft. A fact sheet from prime contractor Northrop Grumman says the aircraft will demonstrate “carrier-based launch and recovery in the 2011 timeframe,” and enter service “in the 2020 timeframe.”

Just how the Air Force and the other military services should proceed with the next generation of tactical air frames is under consideration in the much-anticipated 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.

Senior Pentagon brass have been grappling with the issue for some time.

“We’re at a real time of transition here in terms of the future of aviation, and the whole issue of what’s going to be manned and what’s going to be unmanned, what’s going to be stealthy and what isn’t,” and how to address the threats has changed even in the past few years, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May.

At the hearing, Mullen endorsed the notion that the Air Force might be building its last manned fighter jet.

“There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter,” Mullen told the Senate panel. “I’m one that’s inclined to believe that.”

Deptula, who said the military is years from having totally unmanned combat planes, nevertheless sees many promising technologies already under development. Among them are “planes the size of a fly operating in this room watching and collecting information on everything we are doing.”

Meantime, Deptula and other senior military officials on the special said the four services are cooperating more than ever in the areas of unmanned systems and sharing intelligence data.

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, futures director at the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said his service — and the others — have reached an unprecedented level of cooperation during the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

The new way of doing business, Vane said, is doing whatever necessary to meet the needs of commanders who are directly engaging enemy forces.

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