The military potential of unmanned cargo aircraft

By Dr. Hans Heerkens, University of Twente, Netherlands, Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft and Dr. Frank Tempelman, National Aerospace Laboratory, Netherlands

Unmanned cargo aircraft (UCA), which we may see being developed in the coming years, have characteristics that make them suitable for a variety of military operations. The absence of flightcrew and the resulting freedom to use novel configurations reduce costs. The decoupling of aircraft and crew whereby the controller operates from a fixed site regardless of the UCA’s location facilitates planning and basing and increases utilization, and hence productivity. UCA are expected to be able to move relatively small cargo loads efficiently, thereby increasing flexibility of resupply. The application of dual-use technology may spread development cost over a relatively large production run and facilitate the use of support infrastructure during out-of-area operations. There are limitations too, mostly related to the fact that UCA have yet to be introduced into service. In this article we investigate the potential and limitations of UCA and offer a development agenda.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been used by armed forces worldwide for decades for reconnaissance, communications relay, surveillance, weapons delivery and other tasks. In this article, we explore a relatively new role of UAVs: cargo transport. Although at present only one Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (UCA) is in operational use; the K-Max helicopter of the U.S. Marines, several advantages of UCA promise considerable benefits. UCA can complement or replace surface transport and tactical and strategic airlift in traditional roles, but also make new types of operations possible, like various forms of sustained operations deep within enemy territory. In this contribution, we first describe the concept of Unmanned Cargo Aircraft. Then we explore the various characteristics of UCA that define their suitability for military operations. We also address limitations and challenges. Finally, we present a general roadmap for the development of UCA.

Because of the research method used (see below), this paper cannot offer a definitive assessment of the usefulness of UCA for military operations. It is aimed at identifying the main factors that determine the potential benefits of UCA and giving a broad qualitative assessment of these factors. Only by setting requirements for specific types of operations and then quantitatively assessing the extent to which various UCA configurations would satisfy these requirements, can an accurate judgment of the potential of this new class of aircraft be given.

The complete article is published in a book titled “Armed Forces for 2020 and beyond, Roles | Tasks | Expectations”, ISBN 978-3-902944-82-5, Published by: Republik Österreich / Bundesministerium für Landesverteidigung und Sport
Rossauer Lände 1, 1090 Vienna, Austria.

The book can be downloaded here.