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USAF Hunter-Killer

Hunter-Killer is an unofficial project name based upon an Aviation Week & Space Technology article. When USAF releases an official name, this article will be renamed to suit.

The U.S. Air Force's Hunter-Killer program is a series of five tactical unmanned combat air vehicles, one of which will be selected for production in 2007 or later.

The MQ-9 Reaper won the project and is now being deployed in Afghanistan.

The five candidates that were proposed are:

Raytheon proposed a sixth option, whereby they would offer a combination of sensors, communications systems, and other mission-related systems as a package, and then choose an airframe at a later date. Raytheon's perspective was that, as long as it performs to a minimum set of specifications, the individual airframe is less important than the systems it will carry.

History

This is the U.S. Air Force program for which several companies have developed vehicles.

Although the J-UCAS concept is a long way from the early idea of a "reusable cruise missile", that notion is apparently alive and well. In September 2003, an announcement was made that Lockheed Martin's famous "Skunk Works" was developing an air-launched UCAV named "the Minion". Details released describe it as having a launch weight of 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds) and able to carry a reconnaissance payload, a jammer system, a high-power microwave weapon, or four 100 kilogram (220 pound) GPS-guided small-diameter bombs. It could also be used as a decoy, though it would need to have radar-enhancement payload as it is described as extremely stealthy.

Range is given as up to 1,850 kilometers (1,000 nautical miles). Two would be carried into combat by a single strike fighter such as a Lockheed Martin F/A-22 Raptor, with one under each wing, and launched from standoff distances to attack heavily defended targets. In practice, two strike fighters are expected to be used, launching four Minions, with the pilot of one aircraft watching out for threats while the other directs the UCAVs over a line-of-sight communications link. After the mission, the Minions would return to base and land conventionally on retractable landing gear.

A vague picture released with the announcement showed the Minion to have a certain broad resemblance to various air-launched cruise missiles, such as the Anglo-French Matra-BAe Dynamics APACHE / Storm Shadow or the US AGM-158A Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), which is also built by Lockheed Martin and may have some degree of commonality with the Minion. The picture showed the Minion to have a spikelike, square-sided fuselage, with pop-out wings and twin tailfins, with the engine inlet just forward of the tailfins and the exhaust just behind the tailfins. Both the intake and the exhaust are shielded by triangular covers.

Despite the stealthiness of the Minion, Lockheed Martin is designing it for low cost, to be substantially cheaper than the $400,000 USD JASSM. Rumors about a Skunk Works project involving a cruise-missile-like UCAV had been circulating for a year or two before the announcement. There were also very vague and unconfirmed rumors that the Minion was used in an operational evaluation during the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.

There has been little or no mention of the Minion since that time. It is unclear if the program has been abandoned, or if it has just been placed under deeper secrecy. The second option seems plausible, since the current administration has been noted for being much more enthusiastic about military secrecy than previous administrations.

Somewhat more visibly, in the summer of 2004, the Air Force, in need of a less expensive short-term UCAV solution with a focus on endurance, opened up a competition for a "Hunter-Killer" UCAV. Specifications include:

  • An operating altitude of 10.7 to 15.25 kilometers (35,000 to 50,000 ft).
  • Endurance from 16 to 30 hours or more carrying a warload of 1,360 kilograms (3,000 pounds), in specific six 225 kilogram (500 pound) guided bombs.
  • Fit of SAR/MTI or EO/IR sensors and laser target designator. Of course, the Hunter-Killer would be capable of performing surveillance or reconnaissance missions along with its active combat role.

Cost specifications were given as $10 million USD per aircraft and $30 million USD per "system", with each system including two aircraft and the necessary support gear. The Hunter-Killer program has attracted considerable interest and a number of interesting proposals.

Northrop Grumman has come up with two concepts. The first is the "Model 395", a militarized version of the Scaled Composites Proteus modified to a pure UAV configuration, with a sensor turret under the nose and a SAR-MTI pod under the forward fuselage, and carrying munitions on the centerline, for example tandem triple racks to carry six 225 kilogram (500 pound) munitions. With reduced fuel, it could even carry a single 2,270 kilogram (5,000 pound) bunker buster. At maximum takeoff weight, it would have a ceiling of 15,000 meters (49,000 ft).

The other Northrop Grumman proposal is effectively a half-weight Global Hawk, the "Model 396", with a wingspan of 10.7 meters (35 ft), a length of 27 meters (88.6 ft), and a gross weight of 6,800 kilograms (15,000 pounds), half that of the Global Hawk. It would be powered by a single Pratt & Whitney 545 bizjet turbofan.

General Atomics is of course offering the turboprop-powered Predator B for the role. It is available now; if the Air Force wants more performance, the twinjet Predator C will be ready in 2005. Aurora Flight Sciences and Israel Aircraft Industries are offering an armed Heron 2. Lockheed Martin has responded to the Air Force request but has been keeping quiet about their proposals. Boeing did not submit a proposal, stating the company was busy with other UCAV work.

The Air Force wants to field the Hunter-Killer by 2007 and may order up to 60 machines. The program seems focused to avoid "gold plate", and most of the avionics will likely be off-the-shelf.

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