Friday, August 17, 2012

Unmanned variant of the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen combat aircraft in the future?

Possible future development of Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen aircraft into an unmanned flying, fighting platform.

The Swedish Gripen may be out of the reckoning to bag India's Multi-Billion Dollar Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft [MMRCA] contract. Nevertheless this bit of news caught my attention yesterday. One of the options Sweden is considering as part of building a successor to the 4th generation Gripen is to develop an unmanned variant of the aircraft, with full combat capabilities. This was revealed in an article which appeared on a Swedish website, "NyTeknik" [New Technology],

"Jas 39 Gripen kan i framtiden komma att flyga utan pilot. I samband med planerna på att uppgradera stridsflygsystemet har försvaret studerat möjligheterna att ta fram en obemannad Super-Jas."
"The Jas 39 Gripen, in the future, could be flown without a pilot. As part of plans to upgrade the combat aircraft, the defense ministry has been studying the possibility of developing an unmanned Super-Jas."
This proposal was one of the seven that had been submitted to the Swedish government, one of which also includes going in for foreign acquisition of their future fighter aircraft. This import option, if pursued [though unlikely, considering the national pride Swedes associate with SAAB] would be a major departure from Sweden's long-held policy of maintaining strategic autonomy though indigenous weapon development programme to meet their requirement.
More on the unmanned Gripen, that indicate the aircraft, targeted for completion of development by 2030, would have multi-role capability,
"Av dokumenten framgår att syftet med studien är ”att kortfattat beskriva utvecklingen av obemannade flygande system i ett 2030-perspektiv och möjligheten att kombinera dessa med bemannade plattformar”. Det obemannade planet ska – precis som nuvarande Jas 39 Gripen - kunna växla mellan jakt, attack och spaning."
The documents show that the aim of the study is "briefly describe the development of unmanned flying systems in 2030-perspective and ability to combine these with manned platforms". The unmanned plane are - just like current Jas 39 Gripen - be able to switch between the fighter, attack and reconnaissance roles.
"Samtidigt beskrivs utmaningarna med att flyga stora drönare vara flera. De ska kunna fjärrstyras på ett säkert sätt och samsas i luften med bemannade plan, såväl militära som civila. De obemannade planen måste också integreras i de existerande stridsledningssystemen och använda samma kommunikationslänkar."
"At present, the challenges of flying large-sized drones can be several. They should be able to be operated remotely in a secure manner and come together in the air with manned planes, both military and civilian. The unmanned plan must also be integrated into existing battle management systems and use the same communication links."
"Helt autonoma plan - som är förprogrammerade och kan agera självständigt - kräver samtidigt stor datorkapacitet och utvecklad artificiell intelligens. Sådana system kommer därför att ta lång tid att utveckla, resonerar man i underlaget."
"Fully autonomous planes - which are pre-programmed and capable of acting independently - also require large computing power and advanced artificial intelligence. Such systems will therefore take a long time to develop, as explained in the report."
Retrofitting a manned aircraft into an unmanned one has for long been carried out, especially in the U.S. For example, the supersonic QF-4 drone has been developed out of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter aircraft. However, this aircraft is used to serve as a target for other aircrafts or weapon systems, thus requiring it to perform limited manoeuvres. To develop one into an offensive weapons platform, that is as potent as its manned counterpart would place much greater challenges on the designers, one of which would include addressing latency issues induced by a datalink, while executing quick-second decisions during an engagement, though removing the on-board human should permit much further opening of its flight envelope & carry out manoeuvres, currently prohibited due to limitations of human endurance.
An extremely interesting development, it would be, if the Swedes decide to go ahead with it.
image courtesy: