First-Hand:Unmanned Aircraft Guidance Technology


Unmanned Aircraft Guidance Technology

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Submitted by Manuel “Manny” Fernandez (Retired), Life Member

In the early 1970’s, I was working for Leonard Erb at Litton Industries. He was formerly one of the original two Team Commanders of the USS Abraham Lincoln (SSBN-602).

He informed me that one of his fellow submariners, now an Admiral, had told him that the Navy was starting the Cruise Missile program. Mr. Erb stated that although Litton supplied inertial navigational equipment for the Navy’s manned aircraft, that he was not sure that the technology would be appropriate to the unmanned Cruise Missile weapon delivery system. In fact, the idea of an unmanned weapon delivery aircraft was viewed by many not to be practical for many reasons (high collateral damage, hitting the wrong target, etc.).

Because inertial navigators are self contained and therefore cannot be interfered with, I thought that it was a natural for an unmanned application. I had previously co-authored a book, “Inertial Guidance Engineering”, Prentice-Hall, 1962.

My assignment became one to pursue answering Mr. Erb’s question.

I soon found out that I had a difficult assignment to pursue as there were competing ideas to provide guidance. A competing idea was to guide the missile via isotherms although this was, up to then, unproven.

Because the Cruise Missile was to be launched from a submarine torpedo tube (later, other launch bases were added), there was a limit on diameter and length of the missile. This limit included the rocket-launch assist to get it airborne. A small jet engine had been developed and was to be one of the building blocks. There had to be room for an effective payload (bomb) to create effective target destruction and there had to be room for a large fuel capacity to achieve a long range capability. The missile was specified to survive a shock from a nuclear blast while in the torpedo launch tube and to be hardened to survive the radiation.

Therefore, the planned development of the Cruise Missile was a very difficult one recognizing all the critical factors to be met to achieve an effective weapon delivery system.

Armed with an initial presentation, I visited all the prime contractors expected to bid for the development program, and all of the Navy offices, including their supporting laboratories. After every presentation, I updated my presentation to include answers to the questions raised and to include information that was pertinent. A highlight of this effort was that I was able to schedule a 15-minute appointment with the U.S. Navy Program Manager, Commander Walter Locke (an electrical engineer by education). At the end of the 15 minutes, he asked that I proceed with the entire presentation. Since I had updated my presentation with essential information, I felt I had utilized Commander Locke’s time to his advantage.

I was able to consign inertial navigation equipment and a capable field engineer to one of the prime contractors in order that they could carry out guidance flight tests in a light aircraft. While this contractor did not win the missile development contract, they were selected to be the Prime Guidance Contractor and they in turn awarded Litton the guidance inertial equipment contract.

The development program did not go smoothly, as there were many flight test failures. Finally, the Cruise Missile displayed phenomenal effectiveness during Operation Desert Storm.

The credit for the success of the program is due to many contributors. However, the main credit, in my opinion, goes to Commander Locke who chose proven building blocks and stressed the importance of accurate guidance in making the program successful as displayed during Operation Desert Storm.

I believe that the success of the Cruise Missile program contributed to the many unmanned Drone programs that have since been deployed successfully because doubt had been removed.