When the pilotless, wing-shaped warplane lifted off a runway at California’s Edwards Air Force Base for the first time on the morning of April 27, it was like the resurrection of the dead. The Boeing Phantom Ray — one of the most advanced drones ever built — came close to never flying at all.
In late 2007, according to company insiders, U.S. military officials ordered Boeing to destroy an earlier version of the Phantom Ray, the X-45C. Exactly why the feds wanted the robotic aircraft dismantled has never been fully explained.
Boeing had just lost out to rival aerospace firm Northrop Grumman in a contest to develop an so-called “Unmanned Combat Air System” for the Navy, capable of taking off from and landing on aircraft carriers. That contest, known by its acronym N-UCAS — “N” for “Navy” — was actually the third time in five years Boeing had gone toe-to-toe with Northrop over a government contract to build killer drones, and the second time it had lost.
With each round of competition, Boeing had made enemies.
Even so, the kill order came as a shock to the Chicago-based company. Rare if not unprecedented in the world of military contracting, the command represented the climax of a nearly decade-long drama pitting a rotating field of corporations and government agencies against each other and, bizarrely, even against themselves — all in an effort to develop a controversial, but potentially revolutionary, pilotless jet fighter.
The UCAS development story has all the trappings of a paperback techno-thriller: secret technology, a brilliant military scientist, scheming businessmen, and the unseen-but-decisive hand of the military’s top brass.
And the story’s not over. The X-45C barely survived the government’s alleged assassination attempt. And after three years of clandestine development, a modified version of the flying-wing ‘bot leaped into the air that day in late April, an event depicted in the video above. The Boeing drone’s first flight opened a new chapter in the ongoing struggle to build a combat-ready, jet-powered robot warplane — and to convince the military to give the new unmanned aircraft a place on the front lines of aerial warfare.
What follows is the Phantom Ray’s secret history, reconstructed from news reports, interviews with government and corporate officials, leaked documents, and a treasure trove of information from Boeing insiders who spoke to Danger Room on condition of anonymity. Officials at Northrop largely declined to answer in-depth questions about their unmanned aircraft’s development.
This isn’t a complete retelling of the competition to build the combat drone. By virtue of its subject and sources, this portrays largely Boeing’s point of view over those of its rivals and customers. And Boeing played just one role, however prominent, in the continuing drama.
With traditional, manned fighters growing more expensive, and consequently rarer, by the day, unmanned warplanes are rising to take their place. Boeing isn’t alone in testing pilotless jet fighters. Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, General Atomics, European firm EADS, British BAE Systems and Swedish plane-maker Saab are also working on killer drones. Each company’s UCAS surely has its own secret history.
The future of aerial warfare is more robotic than ever. Boeing’s decade-long struggle to launch the Phantom Ray, and the drone’s ultimate takeoff, is one reason why.