July 11, 2002
EDWARDS AIR FORCE
BASE – Military officials on Thursday showed off a futuristic robot plane
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 Wednesday in Pakistan.
Despite the crashes, military officials
remain bullish on unmanned air vehicles, or UAVs. The high-profile role of
planes like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk and the General Atomics Aeronautical
Systems Predator has helped attract interest in the technology, military officials
and analysts 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 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.
Boeing has built two X-45s so far,
one trimmed in blue, the other in red. Only the blue plane has flown, on May
22 and June 13 above the Mojave Desert. The second will begin flight tests
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, perhaps by 2010.
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.
He said, "We're getting way ahead of
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