August 16, 2006 (by Jeff Hollenbeck) - Like Lockheed's U-2G program which extended the U-2 reconnaisance aircraft's capabilities to carrier operations, Lockheed Martin is looking to expand the possiblilities for its newest aircraft - the F-35 Lightning II.
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With today's fly-by-wire technology, pilots essentially tell the aircraft's computers what they want the aircraft to do through the throttle, stick, and rudder, but the computers decide which control surfaces to move and how much. First seen in production on the F-16, fly-by-wire is now incorporated on virtually all new fighter and attack aircraft in some way. The Lockheed F-35 Lightning II is no exception with a full fly-by-wire flight control system.
With computers moving the control surfaces, an unmanned version of the F-35 seems a natural fit. In a briefing by Lockheed Vice President Frank Mauro, it was announced that an autonomous version of the F-35 has been in planning for two years according to an article in the Washington Post. According to Mr. Mauro, the concept is to build F-35s which could be either operated as either manned or unmanned aircraft to enhance the flexibility with which the aircraft could be employed.
Other published articles indicate that the unmanned F-35 project has been funded in house and developed independently of the U.S. military requirements for the aircraft, giving Lockheed an upper hand if any customer country requested such a capability. While there have been no public announcements of actual integration of unmanned capability into any of the F-35 test aircraft, the plans have been made.
The possible employment scenarios for unmanned aircraft continue to grow. Some see unmanned F-35s operating as extensions of manned aircraft with the unmanned aircraft carrying more ordinance to the target with several "drones" flying alongside each manned fighter. Such tactics would increase the flexibility of the unmanned aircraft and would conceivably increase the survivablilty of pilots in the manned aircraft by allowing the use of the unmanned aircraft as armed reconnaisance assets which would share sensor information by datalink. Others see unmanned aircraft flying their missions on autopilot from takeoff to landing.
Lockheed Martin recently unveiled another unmanned aircraft - the "Polecat
." Built by Lockheed's famed "Skunk Works," the polecat "was specifically designed to verify three things: new, cost effective rapid prototyping and manufacturing techniques of composite materials; projected aerodynamic performance required for sustained high altitude operations; and flight autonomy attributes" according to Lockheed executive Frank Cappuccio in a Lockheed press release.
The F-35 Lightning II is set to replace several aircraft in the near future including the F-16 and AV-8B Harrier for the United States and allied nations around the globe.