Boeing Co. was awarded a $766.7-million contract Tuesday to develop three unmanned combat aircraft, pitting the company against Northrop Grumman Corp. in a competition to be the first maker of such aircraft. The program ultimately could be worth $12 billion.
Boeing's contract to develop three of the X-45C planes through 2010 was awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the U.S. military's research arm. The agency awarded Northrop Grumman a $1.04-billion contract in August to develop its X-47B model simultaneously.
Chicago-based Boeing, maker of the Navy's F-18 Hornet, and Century City-based Northrop Grumman, the biggest maker of unmanned aircraft for the Pentagon, will compete for contracts to build about 300 planes worth about $40 million each from the Air Force and Navy, Northrop said. Once testing is completed in 2010 for the two aircraft, the Pentagon will decide on one of the aircraft or both.
"Near the end of the decade, the goal is to have a decision by the services and the Department of Defense as to what role this system or this class of system will play," said Michael Francis, director of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program for DARPA.
Both companies will build three planes and conduct flights starting in 2007 to demonstrate their abilities to perform missions such as dropping bombs, performing reconnaissance in hostile territory and jamming enemy radar.
The aircraft "are about dull, dirty and dangerous," Francis said. "They've given us the most dangerous missions, which is one of the reasons for them being unmanned in the first place."
Boeing has a head start in testing with its two X-45A planes, which both flew for the first time in 2002, designed for demonstration purposes under DARPA contracts worth almost $848 million since 1999. Since the first flights, the planes have dropped dummy bombs, flown in formation and communicated with manned aircraft. Testing of those aircraft will be complete next year.
The new contract is a modification to previous contracts for Boeing.
"We have learned a heck of a lot operating two unmanned airplanes in a coordinated manner," said Darryl Davis, head of Boeing's unmanned combat aircraft program. "It's been extremely valuable."
Using its own funds, Northrop completed a 12-minute flight in February 2003 of its Pegasus X-47A intended to operate on Navy carriers. Northrop's X-47B and Boeing's X-45C will attempt to fit combined requirements from the Air Force and Navy.
Scott Winship, head of Northrop's program, said he had some catching up to do because of Boeing's testing in the last five years. Still, Northrop is ahead of Boeing in terms of creating an aircraft for Navy carrier landings. He wants to be able to test an aircraft carrier landing in 2008, something Boeing says its X-45C will be unable to do.
"I like the position of being behind," Winship said. "It helps us focus and helps us get going."
Shares of Boeing rose 14 cents to $50.40. Northrop gained 3 cents to $52. Both are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.