One-third of US Military Aircraft May Be Unmanned by 2010

In a breath-taking turn, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that Pentagon officials are predicting that as much as one-third of all US military aircraft will be unmanned just six years from now. In early August, the Air Force for the first time let the public view four of its unmanned combat aerial vehicles in operation.

According to The Times, the Bush administration has committed $2 billion in this year's Defense Department budget to developing and buying more unmanned aircraft, and analysts are reported to believe an additional $1 billion is included in the classified portion of the budget. Further, the Times reports that the Pentagon envisions replacing a third of the nation's military aircraft inventory with pilotless planes by 2010. When contacted directly, both the USAF and the DOD declined to comment although they did not deny the Times' claim.

Within the past year and a half, a Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (Rancho Bernardo, CA), spotted a Taliban convoy, then fired a Hellfire missile, striking the target. It was the first time an unmanned airplane had identified a target and successfully fired a weapon at it.

The mini-air show at Edwards was part of the Assn. for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's convention in Anaheim in August, in which more than 200 companies, large and small, displayed their UAVs, from a beefed-up hobby-type $5,000, 6-inch-long plane equipped with a camera, to Northrop Grumman's $45-million Global Hawk. The market is currently wide open, with hundreds of small companies producing impressive results.

Intense industry competition is underway to go beyond current pilotless surveillance aircraft and build an unmanned combat plane. The Pentagon's J-UCAS Project seeks to create an unmanned aircraft that can fly as far as 1,000 miles at 500 mph to drop bombs on antiaircraft radar installations and missile launchers. Recently, this concept was tested aboard a US Navy aircraft carrier using a Beech King Air surrogate airplane. The Navy requires UCAVs that can be launched from and recovered aboard carriers. The Pentagon hopes to start deploying them by 2008.

Meanwhile, engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp.'s famous Skunk Works are working on a separate project: a supersonic, unmanned aircraft modeled after the super-fast SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. "There is a lot of activity," the Times quoted a Lockheed official. "But they're behind closed doors, so we can't talk about them."

Boeing X-45A unmanned combat aerial vehicle. The much larger B-model is in the works to replace some current manned strike aircraft.