26 October  2001
Boeing's pilotless fighter could make JSF obsolete
By David Bowermaster
The Seatlle Times

When the Pentagon awards the $200 billion Joint Strike Fighter contract this afternoon, Boeing or Lockheed Martin will be hired to produce the world's most technologically advanced jet at cut-rate prices.

But a small team of Boeing's brightest engineers is already hard at work on a far more sophisticated combat aircraft that could cost two-thirds less and eventually render JSF and the pilots who fly them obsolete.

Indeed, the quickly advancing capabilities of unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or UCAVs, has led many defense experts to predict JSF could be the last manned fighter ever built.

"One could very easily imagine the JSF program getting substantially truncated because UCAVs turn out to be able to do everything JSF can," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. military has been using unsophisticated "drones" on reconnaissance missions since at least the Vietnam War.

But dramatic technological advances in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in the complex software that provides the brains of today's UCAVs, have greatly enhanced their versatility, range and functionality.

In March, the Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk reached a maximum altitude of more than 65,000 feet during a historic 30-hour flight from California to South America and back.

An even more impressive achievement was recorded this month in Afghanistan. According to several published reports, the U.S. Air Force equipped an RQ-1 Predator spy plane with Hellfire missiles and conducted the first remote-controlled bombing raids in history. The missions were directed by military operators thousands of miles away in the U.S.

Built by General Atomics of San Diego, the Predator has been in service since the mid-1990s and has been used for intelligence-gathering in Kosovo and in no-fly-zones in Iraq. A Predator with a Hellfire missile first successfully blew up a tank in February in tests at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The Pentagon has not confirmed the Predator's Afghanistan missions. But George Muellner, who directs Boeing's UCAV work as president of the company's Phantom Works unit, is encouraged by what he's heard. "We see that as a real precedent to bring on board things like (Boeing's) UCAV," Muellner said.

The Pentagon selected Boeing over Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in 1999 to lead development of the UCAV Advanced Technology Demonstration program. The $131 million project, which includes $21 million from Boeing, is directed by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency and Air Force.

Muellner said Boeing's X-45 UCAV is specifically designed for combat. Unlike the Predator, which is slow and easily shot down, the X-45 will be stealthy and able to carry more than 3,000 pounds of munitions.

The X-45 will also be capable of identifying, tracking and hitting targets on its own. Human controllers will only be necessary to confirm and authorize targets, to avoid hitting "friendly" forces on the ground or civilian structures.

The Predator, by contrast, relies on a remote operator to monitor data picked up by the plane and then instruct it to bomb a target.

Boeing predicts the X-45 will cost up to 75 percent less to maintain than current aircraft. One big reason: As much as 80 percent of the flying done by existing fighters is to train pilots.

The X-45 is also compact and highly portable. It is 27 feet long with a 34-foot wingspan. The planes are designed to be disassembled and stored for up to 10 years, and can be reassembled in less than an hour. Six of them will fit in a single C-17 freighter for quick transportation to military hot spots around the globe.

These potent capabilities prompted Merrill Lynch aerospace analyst Byron Callan to predict JSF orders could be less than one-half of the 6,000 currently anticipated.

"UCAVs are potentially the most potent long-term competition for the Joint Strike Fighter," Callan wrote in a recent report.

Muellner spent 31 years in the Air Force and oversaw the predecessor program to the JSF from 1993 to 1995. He, too, believes UCAVs will likely mitigate at least some of the demand for JSF.

"From the beginning the assumption has been that UCAVs will replace JSF in some roles," Muellner said.

Foremost among those roles is "suppression of enemy air defenses," the highly dangerous mission of taking out anti-aircraft weapons in the first days of a war such as the one in Afghanistan.

Since Sept. 11, Muellner said, the Pentagon has asked Boeing to accelerate the deployment schedule for the UCAV program. Originally scheduled for service by 2005 or 2006, Muellner said UCAVs could be pressed into use against enemy air defenses as early as 2003 or 2004.

It is too early to gauge how much business UCAVs will represent for Boeing, Muellner said, because the Air Force hasn't determined how many it will buy. But he noted that Boeing is also competing with Northrop Grumman on a UCAV version for the Navy that could be deployed on aircraft carriers, and it's working on an unmanned rotor-wing aircraft that will take off and land vertically. Muellner estimates Boeing already has 500 to 1,000 employees working on various unmannedvehicle projects.

"We see this as a major business opportunity," Muellner said.

Win or lose on JSF, that means Boeing is likely to be developing cutting-edge combat aircraft for many years to come.

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