Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles, or UCAVs, have a rather sad history in the U.S. military. When the General Atomics RQ-1 Predator proved, in the 1990s, that you could arm a medium-sized surveillance drone with air-to-ground weapons and turn it into an elusive, lethal and relatively cheap hunter-killer, folks in the Pentagon got real excited. They wanted to take that basic concept, throw some money at it and see what happened if you designed a drone from the ground-up to be a killer. Boeing was working on one of these so-called UCAVs, the X-45, for the Air Force. Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, had the X-47, which was beefed up for Navy use. Both programs were joint efforts with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa. Looking to boost economies of scale, in 2003 the Pentagon brought both X-planes into the same program, called Joint-Unmanned Combat Air System. As J-UCAS picked up steam, Darpa relinquished control in 2005 and the military took over. A fly-off was imminent. The future looked bright.
Then, without warning in January 2006, the Air Force dropped out, effectively killing J-UCAS. The service said it had decided to focus money and effort on the new Long-Range Strike program to develop a new (perhaps unmanned) bomber. But folks inside the Boeing X-45 office said that was a load of bull and advanced their theories: that the Air Force was scared that the cheap, smart and lethal UCAVs might threaten the manned Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning fighter and start putting fighter pilots out of business; or that the Air Force was uncomfortable sharing technology with the Navy and letting the sea service call any shots in the UCAVs’ designs. (Navy airplanes have to be considerably bulkier and heavier than Air Force planes in order to survive repeated aircraft carrier launches and recoveries.)
Whatever the reason, the Navy was left to salvage something from J-UCAS. They renamed the program, first to N-UCAS for “Naval” then to UCAS-D for “Demonstration.” And they announced their intention to keep both industry teams in the running. It’s taken an entire year for the Navy to piece UCAS-D together; the request for proposals is due any day now. But whether it will eventually produce a real live combat aircraft is anybody’s guess. Technological hurdles are few – but cultural, fiscal and organizational obstacles abound.
Sources inside the Boeing X-45 program say that the office has been effectively split in two, with some staff still surviving on remaining J-UCAS funds and others spending company money while awaiting the Navy contract. Problem is, these two camps are prohibited from working together, for political reasons. And those residing the viable Navy half of the office are apparently being rather mismanaged – encouraged to do advanced work on X-45 despite the contract and prospects for government money being some months away. That’s risky, especially in light of the tenuous health of Boeing’s other drone programs, which have been stripped of people and money in order to keep UCAS-D going. No word on whether Northrop Grumman is suffering similar in-fighting. Probably not, considering that X-47 has long been Navy-optimized and also bearing in mind the firm’s tremendous success with the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone.
After a bullish decade, aerial drones are getting a reality check. The Pentagon has cast its lot with manned fighters over UCAVs and the Army is cutting in half its portfolio of future airborne drones in order to save cash; meanwhile, the Air Force seems to prefer a manned bomber for the Long-Range Strike mission. But if the Navy stands by UCAS-D, drones’ future just might turn around.