When the Central Intelligence Agency jury-rigged a remote-controlled spy plane with missiles and then used them to take out a Taliban target in Afghanistan, it was a first step in revolutionizing air-to-ground combat.
Instead of a pilot in a cockpit, a computer operator in an air-conditioned trailer hundreds of miles away used a keyboard and a joystick to fire the missile.
As the dramatic mission was grabbing headlines, a much more deadly drone was making its way down a runway at Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. The taxi tests of the Boeing X-45A culminated a decades-long effort to build the first stealthy robot planes that can autonomously launch an attack and return to base.
"Unmanned systems are the future of aerospace," said Jerry Daniels, president of Boeing Co.'s military aircraft and missile unit.
Developing robot planes has been a quest of military strategists since biplanes were first used in World War I. They were envisioned as carrying out missions that were otherwise deemed too dull--or too dangerous. But they have faced intense resistance from pilots and aviation purists who believe that no computer can replace the intelligence and quick reaction of a human being.
Robert C. Ettinger, former F-4 fighter pilot and now the flight test manager for Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Global Hawk unmanned spy plane, said other pilots give him a bad time about developing the aircraft.
But Ettinger, who also was the chief test pilot for the F-16, says that soon enough, unmanned aircraft not only will carry out dangerous combat missions but will ferry people and cargo across the country.
"When I was a kid, every time we went to a department store, there was always an operator, and he ran the elevator up and down," said Ettinger, who has been flying since 1961. "My kids have never seen a manned elevator, and I think that's the way it's going to be with airplanes. We're setting the stage for a new kind of aviation."
Boeing formed a separate division in November, with its major operation in Southern California, devoted entirely to pilotless aircraft. Its rivals Northrop and Lockheed Martin Corp. also have focused their development efforts at advanced research laboratories in Southern California.
The new drones combine the latest in composite plastic technology with advanced electronics and powerful computers. Some would be able to make autonomous landings on aircraft carriers, an aviation first. The ambitious effort includes development of new precision bombs with powerful warheads that weigh a fraction of current ordnance.
The Pentagon envisions that eventually one-third of its air fleet will consist of unmanned planes carrying out the most dangerous elements of combat--knocking out enemy air defenses such as radar and antiaircraft missiles so that piloted fighters and bombers can strike targets on the ground and in the air.
"There's great enthusiasm to accelerate" the programs, said Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge Jr., undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "That is one of the primary considerations in our fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2007 budget. I think you'll see some positive things."
Contractors Compete to Devise Drones
With the Afghanistan conflict putting flying drones in the limelight, competition to develop so-called unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or UCAVs, has begun to heat up.
The CIA crudely modified an existing Predator spy drone to carry antitank Hellfire missiles on its plank-like wings. But future unmanned combat aircraft are being designed from the start to carry weapons and make the first penetration of enemy targets.
The X-45A, a radar-evading UCAV that Boeing is developing for the Air Force, is designed to drop precision bombs. Boeing also is competing with Northrop to build a UCAV for the Navy that can take off from and land on an aircraft carrier. Lockheed Martin, the nation's largest defense contractor, also is developing a UCAV at its legendary Skunk Works facility in Palmdale.
Lockheed Martin's UCAV, a highly classified program, reportedly is small enough to be carried under the wing of a piloted jet fighter, which would ferry it to a target area and release it. The UCAV would be far more flexible than a cruise missile because it would be able to loiter in the area and search for a moving target, which it would strike with its weapons. It would return to its base when the attack were over.
Some defense analysts have reservations about taking pilots out of the loop.
"The basic problem with the UCAVs is that they require the ability to respond quickly to a very wide range of unforeseeable circumstances," said Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst with the Lexington Institute. "That's not the case with unmanned reconnaissance airplanes, which fly pre-programmed paths that seldom deviate and rarely confront hostile forces."