Pentagon pushed to purchase unmanned planes

The curtain has just fallen on one high-stakes Pentagon drama--the awarding to Lockheed Martin of the contract to build the next-generation warplane, the Joint Strike Fighter. But a new drama opened last month when Boeing, the losing contractor, decided to go all out to sell the Pentagon a new family of unmanned aircraft. If successful, Boeing could grab a big chunk of the $200 billion slated to go to Lockheed to build 3,000 JSFs for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and foreign militaries.

In another irony of this new contest between the two aerospace giants, retired Lt. Gen. George K. Muellner, who ran the JSF program for the Air Force when he was in uniform, will direct Boeing's development program for the competing Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. The UCAV is one member of a family of high-tech drones--collectively called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles--enjoying ascendancy in this new era, when world leaders worry to an unprecedented extent about their pilots being dragged dead or alive through the streets of foreign capitals by screaming mobs.

The cast in this new drama, as in the old one, includes Pentagon leaders, White House numbers crunchers, politicians, corporate lobbyists, generals, and admirals. And the stakes are again high. The players will be fighting between now and at least 2010--and probably longer--over tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of new ideas. The central, and polarizing, question is how much of the U.S. defense budget should be spent on warplanes with people inside and how much on ones with only wires and computers in the cockpit.

Right now, Boeing and others in the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle community who would like to snare some of that JSF money are getting a big assist from the performance of pilotless aircraft flying over Afghanistan. The Predator (made by General Atomics) and its sister I-GNAT are small and relatively primitive reconnaissance drones. Another, more sophisticated unmanned plane called Global Hawk (made by Northrup Grumman) was just pressed into service to help keep track of the fleeing Taliban.

Rave reviews from the CIA and Air Force about the Predator's performance in Afghanistan have all but eclipsed a recent critical report on that UAV by the Pentagon's own testing office.

"As tested, the Predator UAV system is not operationally effective or suitable," Thomas P. Christie, director of the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Office, wrote in the report. The reason Predator is receiving such favorable reports from field commanders is "largely attributable" to the UAV operators' treating it gingerly: They often wait for good weather and limit the drone's time in the air.

However, the report says, "poor target location accuracy, ineffective communications, and limits imposed by relatively benign weather, including rain, negatively impact missions such as strike support, combat search and rescue, area search, and continuous coverage."

Boeing's UCAV prototype, already built, is a new-generation UAV that can be used as a stealthy bomber or a reconnaissance plane. If it lives up to its advance billing, the drone could do much of what the JSF is supposed to do at a fraction of the cost.

The UCAV is slated to demonstrate its bombing ability to the Pentagon on testing ranges next year. In a written evaluation to Congress, the Pentagon's high-tech directorate--the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--gave a vote of confidence to the UCAV and illustrated why Lockheed Martin has much more than Boeing's brochuremanship to worry about as it tries to guard its JSF money:

"Flying manned aircraft into hostile territory to strike targets or to suppress enemy air defenses places the air crews at great risk. The DARPA-Air Force Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle will prove that some of the most hazardous missions can be performed effectively by an unmanned vehicle, and made operational by 2010, while, at the same time, reducing costs and risk to human life.

"DARPA firmly believes that the unit ... cost of the UCAV weapon system will be one-third that of the Joint Strike Fighter, and that operations and support costs, compared to a current manned fighter squadron, will be reduced by 75 percent."

The per-plane target cost for the JSF is between $40 million and $50 million, depending on its role. That means Boeing's UCAV would have to cost between $13 million and $17 million to fulfill DARPA's expectation.

Congress, too, is enthusiastic about the potential of unmanned aircraft. Lawmakers of late have been appropriating more money to develop unmanned planes than Presidents have been requesting. Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed the prevailing sentiment in an interview with National Journal:

"When you look at the history of casualties, beginning with almost half a million killed in World War II, over 35,000 killed in Korea, and more than 50,000 killed in Vietnam--and zero combat deaths in Kosovo--in my judgment, this country will never again permit the armed forces to be engaged in conflicts which inflict the level of casualties we have seen historically," Warner said. "So what do you do? You move toward the unmanned type of military vehicle to carry out missions that are high risk in nature. The driving force is the culture in our country today, which says: 'Hey! If our soldiers want to go to war, so be it. But don't let any of them get hurt.' "

The fear of losing pilots is also pronounced in European air forces, which have few pilots to spare. In the Netherlands, for example, an argument is ongoing over whether at least some of the millions of dollars earmarked for the JSF should go into UAVs.

There is a new desire as well within the tradition-bound U.S. Navy to embrace UAVs more fervently. Aircraft carriers, along with their planes and pilots, have long been the heart of the expeditionary Navy. If UAVs, which can take off from a short runway on land or sea, take over too many of the roles of today's manned Navy aircraft, the question of why the nation needs so many $5 billion carriers would be pushed front and center.

Despite this threat to its mission, the Navy has followed the Air Force lead and, under DARPA auspices, is now conducting a competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman to build a seagoing version of the UCAV.

In the Air Force's view, the UCAV's primary role would be to fly low over enemy anti-aircraft sites and destroy them with bombs and missiles. But the Air Force UCAV is also being equipped to fire precision weapons that can destroy military targets without causing civilian deaths. The Navy's UCAV would take off from an aircraft carrier and conduct long-range reconnaissance, similar to that now being performed with monotonous regularity over Iraq by manned fighter planes.

Boeing has made no secret of its intention to go all-out to capture as many defense dollars as it can to build unmanned planes, including money intended for the rival JSF.

On Nov. 14, just 19 days after it lost the $200 billion JSF contract to Lockheed Martin, Boeing issued a press release quoting Jerry Daniels, the president and chief executive officer of its military aircraft and missile division at St. Louis: "Unmanned systems are the future of aerospace."

Boeing said it was restructuring its management in hopes of widening its beachhead in the market. Michael Heinz, who was slated to run the JSF program if Boeing had won that competition, will now be in charge of Boeing's unmanned systems effort. "Our goal is to develop a large business out of unmanned systems," Heinz said.

So much money and so many jobs are at stake in this manned versus unmanned fight that a fierce lobbying effort by all sides is guaranteed to continue through 2010, when the JSF and UCAV will both be flying and showing what they can and cannot do. The lobbying fight will be especially fierce given the shrinking aerospace industry. It is virtually certain as well that Senators, Representatives, governors, mayors, and corporate lobbyists will go all-out to protect or pry away JSF dollars, depending on which aerospace team they are championing.

Boeing's Muellner acknowledged in an interview with National Journal that before the end of this decade, national leaders will have to decide how to divide defense dollars between manned and unmanned aircraft. He said that the Afghanistan experience has put wind under the UAV community's wings by demonstrating that advanced drones "have a role to play on the battlefield."

Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Afghanistan, Muellner argued, have shown that unmanned vehicles can operate at reasonably safe, medium altitudes and can take pictures for a far longer period than can satellites or high-flying manned spy planes, which pass overhead quickly. The unmanned vehicles can also, with laser target designation, help precision bombs find their marks. And finally, an unmanned plane can carry its own weapons. (A few jury-rigged missiles have been fired from the Predator in Afghanistan.)

Muellner noted that there is nothing new about launching missiles or bombs from unmanned aircraft. It was first done in the early 1970s. What is new and has greatly increased the appeal of unmanned aircraft, the three-star general said, are the reliable communication links between the unmanned aircraft and people in the air, on a ship, or on the ground.

These advances "give you absolute confidence that what you're shooting at is what you want to shoot at without having a human on site," he said. The communications between human operators stationed out of harm's way and the bloodless UAV over the battlefield can be securely bounced off satellites orbiting in space, Muellner added.

There certainly are aviators out there who feel threatened" by the potential use of unmanned aircarft, said Muellner. "I think, though, that most war fighters really believe there is a very viable niche for these types of vehicles." He predicted that pilots would welcome UAVs that can relieve them of today's boring patrols over Iraq and elsewhere, and free them for more-interesting missions.

"There will always be a human in the loop," Muellner said. "It's just that the human is not sitting in the airplane."

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