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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Orange County Register January 4, 2002

Phantom fighters

Boeing's plans for a super-stealthy unmanned combat plane would cut the pilot out of the picture, potentially saving lives and money.


A bat-like warplane unleashes a guided bomb that homes in on an enemy air-defense battery, angling through the sky until it finds and destroys the target in a flash of fire and smoke. The attack appears to be the work of a skilled pilot.

But there's no human on board the hunter-killer. The enemy has been struck by a stealthy drone that relays images of potential targets to distant ground controllers, whose commanders decide whether to signal the robotic aircraft to use its weapons.

Sounds like fiction. But the Air Force might gain such ability in the not-so-distant future.

Seal Beach-based Boeing Phantom Works has begun preliminary testing of a pilotless warplane called the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. Known by the acronym UCAV, it is the first drone designed from the start to carry advanced missiles or bombs.

Its primary role: suppress or destroy enemy batteries that could fire on fighter aircraft operated by humans.

"Politically, it has become increasingly unacceptable in the United States to suffer human casualties in war," says Martin Streetly, editor of Janes Electronic Mission Aircraft guide.

That's the impetus behind Phantom Works' development of a tailless, 27-foot-long drone that can be programmed to take off, patrol and return to its base. Ground controllers can alter the drone's course, but no one steers the plane full-time.

Essentially, the UCAV is a robot that exploits the advanced navigation and guidance systems and flight-control technology that Boeing has incorporated into such vehicles and weapons as the air-launched cruise missile and the X-40 space plane prototype.

The UCAV will have some ability to evade enemy fire, although Boeing declines to detail the plane's survivability.

"I think that by 2010 you could see hundreds of these (UCAVs) being built," said Phantom Works President George Muellner, who estimates the contracts would be worth more than $1 billion.

That bold prediction draws some skepticism from defense analysts studying a wounded company.

Boeing is trying to rebound from the Pentagon's decision to choose archrival Lockheed Martin to build the Joint Strike Fighter. The fighter contract could be worth more than $200 billion to Lockheed Martin, which also is competing with Boeing-Huntington Beach for hundreds of millions of dollars in rocket launch contracts.

Defense analysts say an armed unmanned vehicle could prove to be an important new product. But they note that the only thing the drone has done so far is autonomously travel up and down a runway in the Mojave Desert.

Experts also say Phantom Works, the research and development arm of Boeing, has not proved its claim that it could build the unmanned plane for one-third the price of a single Joint Strike Fighter, a next-generation manned combat aircraft that's expected to cost $35 million to $50 million.

"The (drone) is probably just the start of an interesting design program," said Richard Aboulafia, a senior aviation analyst with the Teal Group of Fairfax, Va. "The idea that we'll deploy more than a score of them by 2010 is extremely unlikely."

But interest in drones has spiked since Hellfire missiles were attached to the wings of the RQ-1 Predator, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. The Predator has fired some of those missiles at targets in Afghanistan, with unpublicized results.

"After Afghanistan, people will be saying, 'Where do we go from here?' " said Streetly. "Do we arm more Predators? How would we use the UCAV?"

Boeing has yet to prove that it can produce a reliable autonomous attack plane. But company officials say the future looks promising, partly based on the robotic X-40 space plane built in Seal Beach.

The X-40 was dropped seven times from a helicopter at 15,000 feet. All seven tests ended successfully, with the X-40's on-board computers guiding the plane to a safe and accurate landing at Edwards Air Force Base. The X-40 checked its position with Global Positioning System satellites as it approached the runway.

The UCAV will feature more advanced guidance and navigation technology that will permit the plane to fly as high as 40,000 feet or just above ground level. The plane also has a stealthy body that will enable it to swiftly sneak up on enemy air defenses, such as those in the Iraqi no-fly zone.

The drone's projected speed is 550 mph to 600 mph, roughly the cruising speed of manned fighter aircraft. The top of the UCAV's fuselage is rounded to foil electronic waves from enemy radar. Weapons are hidden inside the fuselage until fired.

Some of the aircraft's body is made of radar-absorbing material. And the 8,000- pound warplane has a flight- control system that eliminates the need for a tail, making the vehicle harder to see.

If these features translate into an effective combat drone, "it could alter the face of air power," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit defense analysis group in Alexandria, Va. But Pike warns that Phantom Works' design goals "won't be achieved quickly or cheaply. And the last couple of decades are littered with the carcasses of failed unmanned aerial vehicle programs."

Phantom Works backers include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force, which have jointly invested $191 million over the past three years to build two X-45A model unmanned vehicles and support systems.

By late winter, it will become clear whether the investment paid off.

Starting this month, Phantom Works will put the drone through tougher tests at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. The warplane will undergo faster runway tests. If the trials are successful, attempts will be made to fly the plane, whose flight path can be pre-programmed, then altered by ground controllers.

Some flight tests are expected to simulate an attack on an enemy air-defense system. But it doesn't appear that the early trials will involve the use of live weapons.

The tests will involve a heavy dose of irony.

Phantom Works is basically trying to prove the effectiveness of unmanned drones in a region of the Mojave Desert made famous by such test pilots as Chuck Yeager, the first flier to break the sound barrier, and Pete Knight, who flew the rocket-powered X-15 airplane at 4,520 mph in 1967, an airspeed record that has yet to be broken.

Boeing will be testing a vehicle that was little known before the company lost the Joint Strike Fighter contract in October.

"I think the reason they didn't emphasize the (aircraft's) capabilities is that it would perhaps put them into direct competition with themselves on the Joint Strike Fighter," Streetly said.

Matters changed quickly after the Pentagon selected Lockheed Martin to build the new fighter.

In mid-November, Boeing created a new unit, Unmanned Systems, to continue development of the UCAV and related technologies, following the lead of Phantom Works.

The warplane's profile has risen since then, partly because Phantom Works officials have emphasized that the drone could perform some roles that would have been assigned to the Joint Strike Fighter, possibly sparing the lives of pilots.

"The UCAV does offer (Boeing) an opportunity to be a major player in a new area," said Richard Buchan, a drone expert at the Santa Monica offices of RAND, a nonprofit public policy organization. "In the long term, it will be important."

Owen Cote has greater reservations.

Drones "might be an improvement over manned fighter aircraft in some very-high threat missions like defense suppression against an advanced adversary," said Cote, a defense analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But there are alternatives being discussed for such missions."

The alternatives include the sort of long-range cruise missiles that the U.S. military effectively used against targets in Afghanistan.

Muellner blanches at such comments.

"(UCAV) drops bombs that cost less than $2,000," said the former Air Force lieutenant general, who helped acquire assets for the service. "Cruise missiles cost well over $1 million apiece. The reason to have a recoverable platform is so that it doesn't cost $1 million to destroy a target."

The Teal Group's Aboulafia doesn't dismiss the potential value of unmanned aircraft. But he says: "Since the 1930s, we've seen predictions about the coming obsolescence of the manned aircraft. I think that we've got to admit that there's always going to be a man in the loop."

Copyright 2001 The Orange County Register