Two years ago the Air Force bowed out of a potentially revolutionary program — Joint Unmanned Combat Air System — to build super-smart, super-lethal fighter-size flying robots. Boeing had built two lightweight X-45 demonstrators (pictured) favored by the Air Force; Northrop Grumman had put together the tougher X-47, favored by the Navy. The idea was that the two services would put their heads together and pick one of the two for development.
But then the Air Force quit in 2006, leaving the Navy to go it alone. Last year the Navy tapped the X-47 and awarded a development contract ultimately worth up to $1 billion. If the X-47 pans out, within a decade or so, we might see killer drones flying “chainsaw” attack and spy missions off of aircraft carrier decks.
Exactly why the Air Force quit the program has long been a matter of intense speculation. Some say the service’s top generals, most of them former pilots, are biased against unmanned fighters. Others say that the Air Force decided to move its killer drone work into the classified “black” world. Related were the fates of the two X-45s. Apparently some senior officer wanted the X-45s destroyed. Now we know that didn’t happen, according to the Air Force:
Officials at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum unveiled a new exhibit April 24 of military unmanned aerial vehicles representing each branch of service. Of the six UAVs on display, three artifacts came from the U.S. Air Force:
–MQ-1L Predator A
–X-45A Joint Unmanned Combat Air System
“UAVs are the future of combat air forces,” said Dik Daso, the museum curator for modern military aircraft.
Yes, they are. So again I ask: why exactly did the Air Force abandon its best chance at building a fighter-type killer drone? And why, a year later, did the service issue a request for information to design new drones, when it already had a perfectly good one on hand?
The RFI, issued in April 2007, drew about 280 responses, Col Jim Firth, deputy director requirements at Air Combat Command told an IDGA unmanned air vehicles conference in Washington DC. “We are working through them, inventorying the capabilities, looking for the art of the possible,” he says.
Colonel, the art of the possible is now hanging in a museum (pictured below).