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The Air Force Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle is the particular darling of the American military and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Pilot-less "drone" aircraft have had a place in tactical warfare since the first weather balloons and camera-toting platforms were launched. A recent incarnation, the RQ-1 Predator Medium Altitude Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle has found great success in Afghanistan, both as a reconnaissance vehicle (Taliban leader Mullah Omar, you'll recall, was targeted by a Predator early in the war) and—in a mission profile somewhat hastily added—as a platform for the devastating laser-guided Hellfire missile. It was in that configuration early this week that a Predator drone fired upon three alleged members of the Taliban, the tallest of whom was certainly killed, though reports are still sketchy and contradictory concerning a: whether the men were indeed Taliban, and b: whether the tallest of them was Osama Bin Laden himself.

A most promising addition to America's arsenal of unmanned aircraft (see Yurei's fascinating writeup which describes many other models) is Boeing's X-45A demonstration system, which completed low speed taxi tests last November and will commence flight tests by spring at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Southern California.

The X-45A system is comprised of the plane itself, a mission control system, and a storage container. The aircraft is stealthy, tailless, and 27 feet long with a 34-foot wingspan. Its empty weight is 8,000 pounds and it can be multiply-configured with a variety of weapons and reconnaissance systems.

Conceptually, the X-45A is designed similarly to the Predator, in that multiple craft are utilized. The first phase of Boeing's test program will demonstrate that two aircraft can perform a coordinated suppression of enemy air defenses. The machines are equipped with pre-programmed objectives and preliminary targeting information by ground-based mission planners. The mission can then be carried out autonomously, but it can also be revised en route by UCAV battle managers, should new objectives or targets present themselves. In its final configuration, an X-45A battle system will comprise up to four aircraft controlled by one person at a reconfigurable mission control station. Both satellite relay and line-of-sight communication links will be utilized.

It is the exploration of the synergy between man and machine that is a key component of the program's objectives.

Upon completion of a mission, the UCAV will be dismantled and placed in a container for shipment or storage for a period up to ten years. The vehicle will be monitored, maintained, and receive software updates while still in its container. It can be reassembled and prepared for combat in an hour.

The UCAV is small, relatively low-cost (at 65 percent less than future fighter aircraft), reusable, easily-stored and doesn't require an expensive, highly-trained, and vulnerable pilot. Its operational costs are expected to be 75 percent less than current systems.

The UCAV demonstration program is conducted under a $191 million, 56-month cost-share agreement awarded to Boeing in March 1999 by DARPA and the United States Air Force.

Upon successful completion of test objectives, the Department of Defense expects to deploy this system by 2008.

DARPA News Release, December 4, 2001
Popular Science Best of What's New. http://www.popsci.com/bown/index.html.

19 April 2004--a progress report

A Boeing Joint Unmanned Combat Air System X-45 aircraft released an inert GPS-guided bomb Sunday at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division range in China Lake, Calif.

According to an AP story, the X-45 took off, opened its bomb bay doors, dropped a 250-pound Small Smart Bomb, and landed sucessfully. The bomb apparently hit its target.

“It’s absolutely a huge step forward for us, said Rob Horton, Boeing's chief operator for the mission. "It shows the capability of an unmanned airplane to carry weapons. From the video, you see the weapon going down and a huge cloud of dust and the truck shaking around.”

Horton, sitting 80 miles (130 kilometers) from the target, authorized the drone to drop the bomb, which was released from 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) as the plane flew at 442 mph (700 kilometers per hour).