Boeing tests unmanned combat aircraft

The Boeing Co. successfully flew its unmanned combat aircraft May 22, sending the plane to 7,500 feet as the Chicago-based company demonstrated the command and control link between the craft and a ground station.

Flown at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., the X-45A reached airspeed of 195 knots during its 14-minute test flight.

The X-45A was developed by the Boeing Phantom Works advanced research and development unit and the Boeing Military Aircraft and Missile Systems Unmanned Systems organization. The work was funded by a 1999 $131 million cost-sharing agreement between Boeing and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"This flight represents a significant jump in our quest to mature the technologies, processes and system attributes required to integrate [unmanned combat air vehicles] into the future Air Force," said Air Force. Col. Michael Leahy.

The military is showing greater interest in unmanned air vehicles, which are smaller and lighter than manned aircraft. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has allotted around $1 billion to unmanned aerial vehicle development programs in the fiscal 2003 defense budget request, according to the American Forces Press Service.

On Jan. 31, Northrop Grumman Corp., Los Angeles, was awarded a $41.5 million contract modification to further develop its Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, according to the Aeronautical Systems Center, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Although the X-45 series is being developed from inception as a combat craft, the military is already deploying unmanned vehicles for other missions. The military has about 200 UAVs in use today, and plans to have 500 in use by 2007, according to the American Forces Press Service.

The Air Force's Predator and Global Hawk models have been deployed in Afghanistan, mostly for reconnaissance, although some of the Predators have been retrofitted with Hellfire missiles.

The Global Hawk relies mostly on an onboard computer to control flight, while the Predator is flown remotely by a flight crew on the ground. Combat vehicles such as the X-45A will have stealth capabilities and will be designed to go into dangerous areas and destroy targets.

Boeing plans to have a second X-45A flying by next year in order to conduct coordinated flight tests. The company also is developing the X-45B, which will be larger and have more capabilities.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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