Interest in the technology
has grown since Sept. 11
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — Military officials Thursday showed off a futuristic robot plane specifically designed to survive the rigors of combat, unlike other pilotless drones plagued by crashes on the front lines of the war on terrorism.
Since the fall, at least eight robot planes used by the U.S. military have crashed, in and around Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines. The latest crash, of a Global Hawk reconnaissance plane, came on Wednesday in Pakistan.
Despite the crashes, military officials remain bullish on unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs. The high-profile role the planes, most notably Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ much smaller Predator, have taken on has helped in attracting interest in the technology, military officials and analysts alike said.
“I doubt you could have found 12 congressmen prior to Sept. 11 who could have told you what a Predator was, much less who made it,” said Larry Dickerson, senior unmanned air vehicle analyst for Forecast International/DMS in Newtown, Conn. Dickerson predicts the global market for military drones could be worth $7.5 billion over the next decade.
The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which develops future technologies for use by the Pentagon, has at least a half-dozen other UAVs and UCAVs — the “C” stands for combat — under development. Among them are jet- and rotor-driven craft, some no larger than a cake pan.
On Thursday, it displayed for reporters one of the larger of the planes, the X-45.
Developed by DARPA, the Air Force and The Boeing Co. for $256 million, the sleek, tailless jet is the first unpiloted plane to be developed specifically to carry weapons into combat. Beginning in Vietnam, other drones, including the Predator now flying in Afghanistan, have been modified to carry missiles.
“This is designed as a tactical aircraft. Global Hawk and Predator were not,” said Col. Michael Leahy Jr., manager of DARPA’s UCAV program.
While Predator and Global Hawk have been pushed into combat while still under development, Leahy said the X-45 is being designed with that purpose already in mind.
“The difference is, we see that coming, The assumption is it will be taken to the field,” he said.
Boeing has built two X-45s so far, one trimmed in blue, the other in red. Only the blue plane has flown, taking to the air May 22 and June 13 above the Mojave Desert. The second will begin flight tests this fall.
Sitting side-by-side, the two Y-shaped planes both sport a gaping air intake instead of a canopy. The planes have a 34-foot wingspan and are just 4 feet thick, giving them a slim, stealthy profile.
Those working on the X-45 call it the “Stingray.” Leahy said he prefers the nickname “Shrike” for what could eventually be designated the A-45.
Military officials said the slightly larger production model of the plane will be able to carry more than 3,000 pounds of bombs to drop on enemy radar and missile batteries, something it could be ready to do by 2010. The plane is designed to fly autonomously, with a single operator — military officials bristle if you call them “pilots” — overseeing as many as four of them at a time.
The use of drones in combat in Afghanistan has already become the stuff of pop culture. This week’s “Doonesbury” cartoon strip is a running gag about a government agent’s intern accidentally launching a Predator and firing a missile.
Richard Aboulafia, director of aviation for the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group, said it’s premature to spell out a combat role for robot planes when their use for less risky reconnaissance missions has yet to be perfected.
“We’re getting way ahead of ourselves here,” Aboulafia said. “It could lead to great things, but don’t have any illusions. You’re not going to see 100 X-45s deployed by 2010.”
Dickerson echoed concerns about overselling the capabilities of such planes.
“There’s been a lot of hype and a lot of people are very excited about these systems and they’re trying to push them to bank on that interest, but there’s a danger they could overstep their boundaries and do themselves more damage than they realize,” he said.
Leahy said he was aware of those concerns.
“We’ve oversold ourselves in the past. We’re cognizant of that,” he said. “In this program, we’re trying to stay within our bounds.”