Top Cover and Minion
Until recently there has been a clear distinction between cruise missiles and UAVs. However, Lockheed recently unveiled plans to demonstrate a ‘persistent surveillance’ hybrid cruise missile / UAV named Top Cover.
The air-launched Top Cover has forward-swept wings which fold against the fuselage during transit, weighs 200kg with a 20kg payload and is powered by a single turbofan engine. Planned to operate in surveillance mode at around 5,000ft with an endurance of 24hr, the Top Cover will be able to carry a variety of different sensors including: a GMTI radar, infrared and electro-optical cameras, an acoustic package and a SIGINT package according to the type of mission flown. Various warhead options are still being considered, but could include directed energy systems. Combined warhead and sensor packages can be carried, or a mix of missiles equipped with either sensors or warhead could work together to locate, identify and the engage targets. Lockheed intend to start demonstration flights with Top Cover in 2006.
Back in 2003 Lockheed released details on another stealthy cruise-missile / UAV, but since then little or nothing has been heard of the Lockheed Minion. Like the Top Cover, the Minion would be air-launched, but is much larger than Top Cover with a launch weight of 3,400kg. Capable of carrying a 400kg payload, the Minion was described as being capable of carrying either a reconnaissance payload, a jammer system, a high-powered microwave weapon or four 100kg GPS guided small-diameter bombs. The Minion could also act as a decoy, provided the stealthy design was fitted with a radar-enhancement package. Like Top Cover, the Minion’s wings would pop-out on launch and a single turbofan engine would provide a 1,000nm range. Once again a mixture of Minions with different payloads would be capable of working together.
Both these stealthy cruise missiles / UAVs would make an excellent weapon for the Northrop B-2 or in the case of the smaller Top Cover, the Lockheed F-22. The convergence of cruise missile, UAV and UCAV technology in these two missiles clearly demonstrates the way Lockheed is thinking. I suspect it won’t be long before Top Cover, Minion or another hybrid system is introduced into operational USAF service, indeed there are rumours that Minion was used in Iraq in the spring of 2003, so there’s a good chance the system is actually already available.