Since aircraft were first used extensively in combat during World War I, fighter pilots have enjoyed public acclaim for their skill and bravery. But the next generation that flies these jets may not have to risk themselves at all. They may not even have to be pilots. In the future, fighter jets may just require somebody to monitor their operating software, from the safety of the ground.
The next big thing in military aviation is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Based on their performance in Kosovo and Afghanistan, U.S. military leaders are actively pushing for development of the next generation of pilotless aircraft. The UAVs currently used by the Air Force were originally designed as observation planes, an eye in the sky. But they have also carried a few missiles and bombs.
The next generation UAVs will be designed from the outset to carry weapons and use stealth technology. The idea is to have a fleet of unmanned fighter jets that can go in early during an air campaign to knock out an enemy's defenses. U.S. Air Force Colonel Michael Leahy said UAVs are the right equipment for what's considered the most risky part of a war.
"These give you that kind of capability, they potentially are cheaper, that's one of the things weąre interested in," he explained. "They can potentially go take on the three D's: the dirty, dull, dangerous missions that quite frankly we don't want to risk someone for."
This summer, the Boeing Company and the Air Force unveiled the X-45 UAV on a desert tarmac at Edwards Air Force base, where most of the country's most innovative military aircraft have been developed. The bright white planes were notable for what they didn't have: cockpits, tails or windows. Their $10 million price tag pales in comparison to the $100 million the new F-22 will cost. Air Force officials say, the X-45 will have the lowest cost per mission in the fleet. The planeąs development comes less than a year after the Defense Department commissioned the Joint Strike Fighter. According to some analysts, that plane may be the last manned fighter jet specially made for the US government.
Boeing which lost that contract to Lockheed Martin is now positioning itself to offer the military the fighter it wants next. Boeing spokesman Denny Klein said hundreds of employees are working on unmanned aerial vehicle projects, including plans for an entire unmanned battle field.
"Boeing as a corporation in the last year, has made a huge commitment to unmanned systems," said Mr. Klein. They've created a new executive position and a new organization within Boeing. To support expressly at the moment UCAV, unmanned combat air vehicle, but also other unmanned systems.
New technology, especially software that will help control the UAVs, makes the X-45 possible. But there's really no consensus about what an unmanned fighter plane should look like, or what it should do. That's a boon for aerospace engineers. They're free to imagine future jets capable of doing things unheard of today, able to perform maneuvers that would cause a pilot to lose consciousness. But University of Washington Aeronautics Professor Juris Vagners points out the X-45's design doesn't go that far.
"The current crop of UAVs, that are intended to do flight functions of piloted vehicles; the configurations do not really fully exploit the freedom that getting rid of the pilot has given them," he added.
Whether the X-45 sees combat or not, Professor Vagners says it's a necessary step in the evolution of pilotless fighter jet design. Dozens of companies are developing similar unmanned aerial vehicles, from palm-sized disposable observation planes, to the X-45. While the military is moving quickly toward this next generation plane, Professor Vagners says he expects to see UAVs in general use as well.
"There are a lot of applications in the civilian sector for UAVs that will grow when the technology is mature and when the commercial aspects of using UAVs become a very strong motivating factor," he said.
For example, Professor Vagners helped develop a UAV about the size of a bicycle that flew across the Atlantic Ocean using only 5 liters of fuel. So it's possible that the plane being developed for the military could clear the way for unmanned planes to haul the mail or gather weather data from the eye of a hurricane. The technology could minimize the risk to human pilots, and reap big rewards for companies like Boeing.