The Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) program is a good example of a system prototype program executed at DARPA. The UCAV program started as the Uninhabited Tactical Aircraft Program in 1994 under the leadership of Colonel Mike Francis. The program focused on the networked integration of multiplatform operations, addressing the challenge of multiplatform sensing and situational awareness, dynamic planning, and efficient airspace operations. The goals were increasing effectiveness for target prosecution, improving decision making, expediting actions, and increasing flexibility for future strike systems.

From 1994 to 1998, the program manager met with a number of potential stakeholders in this effort, including the war-fighting organizations, potential contractors for the effort, and representatives from government laboratories. User interactions generally focused on helping to define the UCAV concept. Much of this work was the result of interactions with the Air Force in 1996 and 1997. The Air Force then became DARPA's partner in the initial UCAV program.

With this decision to proceed, UCAV program management focused on four main details. First, a single dull, dirty, dangerous mission was identified as the focus of the program—the reactive suppression of enemy air defenses. Second, goals were set for range, speed, endurance, and survivability that exceeded those of existing manned systems. Third, the program aimed to dramatically reduce the cost of the system, both in acquisition and operation, below that of competing approaches. Finally, a series of key technical risks were identified and addressed—risks in airframe capability, human-machine interface, communications, targeting, signature management, supportability, and mission planning.

The next program manager, Larry Birckelbaw, developed the program execution strategy for UCAV. The UCAV program was executed under the OTA granted to DARPA. The OTA provided flexibility in matters of contracting, in facilitating cost-sharing by industry, and in forming and managing teams. The first phase of the UCAV program under Birckelbaw was a 1-year competition among four vendors based on concept design, risk management approach, and analysis of overall effectiveness.

The second phase of the program focused on demonstrating the capability of multiple A-model vehicle prototypes in key risk areas such as autonomous ground operation, intervehicle communication, multivehicle flight operations, and dynamic retasking. The air vehicles were part of an overall demonstration tool kit that included not only the unmanned aircraft but also surrogate aircraft and extensive modeling simulation tools.

The third phase of the program—the demonstration phase—was to address additional risks with B-model vehicles. The key risks to be addressed in the B-model UCAV included formation flying with communication loss, planning and decision-making systems, final air vehicle design, incorporation and simulation for joint exercises, and finally, a series of final demonstrations in services and joint exercises.

By the year 2000, the UCAV effort had developed to the point where it had generated such interest that the Navy felt it should also join the effort. This resulted in a UCAV-N effort. It included all the goals from the Air Force effort but added a series of issues that needed to be addressed to allow complex unmanned systems to operate in the unique environment of an aircraft carrier, including integration with manned aircraft operations, catapult launch, on-deck taxi maneuvering, arrested landing, waveoff from the flight deck crew, and recovery from failed arrest.

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