Who Killed the Killer Drone? (Redux)


Lockheed Martin's recent unveiling of its Polecat UAV might be related to the nascent Air Force program to field a new bomber by 2018. But then, it might not. Some industry insiders believe the Air Force is bent on keeping pilots in bomber cockpits, no matter what.pilot.jpgAfter years of steady growth in funding, development and operational use, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have begun to rival and, in some cases, exceed the capability of manned aircraft.The rapid maturing of military UAVs into armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles was seen in one of the most promising armed drone programs, the joint unmanned air combat system, or J-UCAS.J-UCAS began its life at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1998. Both Boeing and Northrop Grumman built jet-powered demonstrators: the X-45C and the X-47B, respectively. The X-45 was equipped for in-flight refueling and optimized for Air Force missions that demanded a high degree of stealth. The X-47 was less stealthy, but longer-ranged and designed to operate from Navy aircraft carrier decks.After seven years of successful design and testing, in November 2005, the Defense Department transferred J-UCAS to a joint Air Force and Navy office and scheduled a fly-off between the demonstrators.But then, in February 2006, the Pentagon ordered the Navy to take over J-UCAS. Air Force killer drone funding was redirected to a new, vaguely defined, "next-generation long-range strike" development program that, according to observers, is likely to include a mix of unmanned and manned bomber aircraft.Just months after its graduation from fringe research status to major procurement program, J-UCAS had been downgraded to Navy UCAS, or N-UCAS. The X-47 was largely unaffected, but the X-45 had lost its sponsor and, it seemed at first, any hope of ever reaching production.One Boeing employee who worked on the X-45 program said the Air Forces about-face was a long time coming. He asked to not be quoted by name because his views do not reflect the companys official stance."We knew even from early 1999 and the original X-45A UCAV contract that we were fighting a political, cultural and budget prejudice that could kill us," said the employee. Many of the Boeing workers from the X-45 program, he said, were angered by the abrupt cancellation of J-UCAS just when they were nearly "on the cusp of making history in the aviation world."He speculated that the Air Forces decision to withdraw from the program was partly financial mostly to ensure that the J-UCAS would not drain any procurement funds from high-profile manned aviation programs such as the F-22 and the F-35 fighter jets. Another possible explanation for the Air Force backing away from J-UCAS, the Boeing employee said, is that the X-45 was running headlong against the Air Forces pilot culture that prefers dropping bombs from cockpits, rather than from ground control centers.Read more in my feature on the late J-UCAS in this month's National Defense Magazine. The piece is co-written with National Defense editor Sandra Erwin.--David AxeP.S. -- Big thanks to the Defense Tech readers who stopped by the San Diego Comic Con last weekend to save me from hours of talking about Spiderman's new costume with sweaty geeks in weird hats.

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