Stealth UCAV / UCAS / UCLASS Drones From Around the World
China - Li Jian (Sharp Sword)
It looks rather similar to the X-47B, although that's much less likely the result of espionage than of the physical requirements of stealth and some judicious Googling of the widely available images of the US aircraft.
In contrast to blatantly fake fighters and dummy drones trotted out by Iran, the Chinese stealth drone "is probably real," Heritage Institute analyst Dean Cheng told my colleague Colin Clark in an email this morning. "The Chinese have displayed at least 25 different drone models and variants."
"The issue with drones is not whether they can fly (aerodynamics), but what their software is," he added. "Are these truly autonomous? Are they flown via a datalink, as American drones are ([i.e.] really remotely piloted vehicles)?" If so, how secure is that control link?
- Breaking Defense
Consensus among China watchers is that the vehicle depicted in the photos is the Lijian, or "Sharp Sword," Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, a collaboration between Chinese aerospace firms Shenyang and Hongdu. Powered by a single jet engine and resting on tricycle landing gear, the Sharp Sword UCAV seems to sport the flying-wing shape shared by several U.S.-made killer drones prototypes.
It's worth noting that China is the last major aerospace power to debut a jet-powered, low-radar-signature killer drone prototype. The U.S. has led the pack, test-flying no fewer than five UCAVs since the late 1990s and even bringing one unarmed variant, the RQ-170, into frontline service. Europe has the Neuron and Taranis models in development and Russia is working on a version of the MiG Skat.
As drone developers all over the world have discovered, airframes are often the easiest part of the system to create. What's hard are the software, datalinks, control systems and payloads that transform what are in essence large model airplanes into effective robotic weapons. And it's with these key subsystems that China will likely have the most trouble.
The Pentagon China report specifically lists "solid-state electronics and micro processors [and] guidance and control systems" as technologies Beijing finds it easier to buy or steal from the U.S., Europe and Russia than to develop on its own. U.S. experts worried that China might gain access to some American drone technology via an RQ-170 that crashed in Iran in 2011.
France - Dassault nEUROn
Initiated in 2003, Neuron is 50% financed by France, with participation from Italy, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland and Greece. In addition to technology development, the UCAV aims to demonstrate a leaner decision-making process that eliminates the procurement complexities that have plagued other international collaborations, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. For Neuron, Dassault coordinates industrial interests and interacts with DGA, which is responsible for coordinating the governments' collective position.
Designed to attack relocatable targets, such as "double-digit" air defense systems and mobile ballistic missiles Neuron can autonomously transmit imagery to an operator on the ground who can then clear the vehicle to return and strike.
Powered by a Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour engine, the 10-meter-long (33-ft.) Neuron has a wingspan of 12.5 meters and a dry mass of 5,000 kg (11,000 lb.). It is designed to operate for up to 3 hr. at a maximum altitude of 10,000 ft., achieving speeds up to Mach 0.8.
UK - BAE Systems, Taranis
The Taranis, named for the Celtic god of thunder will fly faster than the speed of sound and beyond the eye of enemy radar with its single-wing stealth design, and U.K. officials hope to see it replace piloted planes and current unmanned drones alike.
It's a tall order, but the Taranis already has some nifty technology built into it. In the event the Taranis is spotted and efforts to bring the drone down begun, it can self-evade without input from a controller.
It can also independently identify targets and would only check back with a human controller before initiating an attack. At about $200 million the Taranis prototype isn't cheap, but the RAF believes it's a good investment.
Replacing full-sized manned bombers with more than three decades of battle-tested experience is no small feat, and the Taranis, at least this version, isn't terribly large.
The latest specifications have it at about 37 feet long with a 30 foot wingspan and powered by a Rolls-Royce Adour engine, like the U.S. Navy's T-45, and is reported to have a global range. This likely means Taranis is capable of mid-flight refueling as the U.S. Navy's X-47B drone is designed to do as well.
That autonomous ability with unlimited range is something military planners have been after for a long time both in the U.K. and here in the U.S.
USA - Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, UCLASS
Lockheed Martin is revealing additional details about its submission for the US Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme saying it has already built a full-scale mock-up of the flying wing design.
"We have a full-scale mock-up," says Robert Ruszkowski, Lockheed's director of UCLASS programme development. "That's been a good engineering tool to look at fit checks."
For its concept, the company's Skunk Works design team has selected a flying wing configuration because it is particularly well suited for the missions that the UCLASS is expected to fly.
"There is nothing inherently unique about a flying wing, but we have a lot of experience with them," Ruszkowski says.
The flying wing's combination of aerodynamically efficiency, potential for very low signatures and structural simplicity make it ideal for an application like the UCLASS, he says. The design would allow the aircraft to be adapted to operate against a broad swath of threats ranging from permissive airspace to the anti-access/area denial environments. "We've got the right shape for that, we've got the right materials from the [Lockheed] F-35 that can be readily leveraged," Ruszkowski adds.
While the Lockheed UCLASS has the range and persistence to fly deep into enemy territory, it does not have the weapons payload of a true long-range strike platform like the old Grumman A-6 Intruder. "We think there is an element of the mission set that might be for long range operations, but it is truly not for large payloads at long ranges," Ruszkowski says. "Trying to keep the system affordable, this will not be anywhere near a replacement for an A-6 from a strike perspective."
Because flying wings are structurally simple, they are also easier to manufacture, which helps the design to be affordable. "There is not as much tooling associated with say a flying wing compared to a more conventional design," Ruszkowski says.