The sight of an aircraft crashing and burning is for most engineers the stuff of nightmares. But, for engineers developing a new class of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) called attritable aircraft, such destruction is not likely to elicit more than a shoulder shrug.
Attritable aircraft are designed to be thrown out – eventually.
The US Air Force (USAF) believes that by designing and building military UAVs cheap enough it can gain an edge over its adversaries in a war of attrition (hence the name “attritable”). Essentially it wants UAVs that it can afford to lose.
The service says it is seeking UAVs priced between $2 million and $20 million each to accomplish a range of missions, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air strikes, air-to-air combat and electronic warfare. Exactly what price point offers the best balance of affordability and military performance is debated by the aircraft manufacturers that are vying to build the USAF’s fleets of attritable aircraft in programmes such as Skyborg and MQ-Next.
“The philosophy behind an attritable aircraft is really around design for cost,” says Andrew Glynn, programme manager for the Boeing Airpower Teaming System, an attritable UAV. “It’s about trying to get a good enough product at the right price.”
Building a “good enough product” is a change in mindset for the aerospace industry, which is usually doggedly focused on high levels of safety and reliability. However, with attritable UAVs there is no pilot to keep alive. And, by design, the equipment is so cheap that combatant commanders – and the US Congress – will not mind the loss.
Manufacturers say model-based systems engineering – a common set of digital designs for engineering, manufacturing and maintenance,