The U.S. plans to have one-third of US tactical combat aircraft unmanned by 2010. In early August, the Air Force for the first time let the public view four of its unmanned combat aerial vehicles in operation. The government has committed $2 billion in this year's Defense Department budget to developing and buying more unmanned aircraft, and it's reported that an additional $1 billion is included in the classified portion of the budget.
Within the past year and a half, a Predator UAV spotted a Taliban convoy, then fired a Hellfire missile, striking the target. It was the first time an unmanned airplane had identified a target and successfully fired a weapon at it.
A trade show last month displayed many UAVs, from a beefed-up hobby-type $5,000, 6-inch-long plane equipped with a camera, to Northrop Grumman's $45-million Global Hawk. The market is currently wide open, with hundreds of small companies producing impressive results.
Meanwhile, in Palmdale, engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp.'s famed Skunk Works are reported to be working on a separate project: a supersonic, unmanned aircraft modeled after the Mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance airplane.
DARPA continues to work closely with the Army, Navy, and Air Force toward the goal of creating capable unmanned combat systems. DARPAs stated goal is not simply to replace people with machines, but to team people with them while saving money and lowering the risk of US casualties. DARPA is currently heavily involved in the development of the Joint Unmanned Aerial Combat Air System with the X-45, as reported elsewhere. An intense competition is underway between vendors to meet the Pentagons demand to meet the J-UCAS requirements: make an aircraft that can fly as far as 1,600 kilometers at 500 mph to drop bombs on antiaircraft radar installations and missile launchers and then return safely to base. The Pentagon hopes to start deploying them by 2008. K.B. Sherman