With its new focus on prototyping, Boeing has announced plans to fly an unmanned combat air vehicle testbed - the Phantom Ray - in December 2010. If the aircraft looks familiar, that's because it is - it's the X-45C that was completed, but never flown, when the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program was cancelled back in 2006. Amy Butler has exclusive photographs of the aircraft and analysis of Boeing's plans in the latest issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
It's fitting that the Phantom Ray will finally fly. Teamed with DARPA and the US Air Force, Boeing was first to demonstrate an autonomous attack aircraft - the X-45A UCAV. In February 2005, a pair of X-45As demonstrated autonomous, reactive suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), all the way to weapon release. J-UCAS was to be the follow-on program, still led by DARPA, but now involving the U.S. Navy as well as the Air Force.
Boeing was awarded a $747 million contract in October 2004 to build three larger, stealthier X-45Cs. Northrop Grumman was also awarded a contract to build two X-47Bs. But the J-UCAS program was cancelled in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, in large part because Air Force interest had drifted towards a much larger long-range strike aircraft, which eventually emerged as the Next Generation Bomber (NGB).
X-45C in 2006 (Photo: Boeing)
J-UCAS was cancelled in March 2006, just as Boeing was about to roll out the first X-45C. What remained of the program was transferred to the Navy, which held a competition for the Naval Unmanned Combat Air System carrier demonstrator. Boeing offered a navalized X-45C, dubbed the X-45N, but Northrop predictably won with its carrier-ready X-47B and was awarded a $636 million contract in August 2007 to complete the two aircraft started for J-UCAS and conduct at-sea carrier suitability demonstrations in 2011.
The first X-45C and partially complete second aircraft languished in storage until late last year, when Boeing decided it should get back into the prototyping business. Now the first aircraft, renamed the Phantom Ray will be completed and readied for flight by the end of 2010. Boeing says it plans to conduct 10 flights over about six months to show its potential for missions including ISR, SEAD, electronic attack, hunter/killer and autonomous aerial refueling.
Unveiling of the Phantom Ray comes hard on the heels of U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates' April 7 announcement that the NGB program is to be deferred and his comments that perhaps the next Air Force bomber could be unmanned. In effect, we are back to where we were before March 2006, when the J-UCAS program was planning to demonstrate technology for future unmanned strike/surveillance platforms.