Warplanes: May 25, 2002

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The Boeing Company's X-45 has successfully made its maiden flight on 22 May. The first robotic plane designed specifically to fly combat missions and one of two built so far, successfully took off, flew for 14 minutes and landed. 

The plane was developed by the company's Phantom Works under a contract with the Air Force and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The X-45 is also compact and highly portable, 27 feet long with a 34-foot wingspan. Boeing designed the plane to have a 750-mile range and fly at subsonic speeds. 

The Air Force would like to store the planes for extended periods and then ship them, at short notice, to regions where they would be needed. The planes are designed to be disassembled and stored for up to 10 years, yet be reassembled in less than an hour. Six X-45s will fit in a single C-17 freighter for quick transportation to military hot spots around the globe. 

The rapidly advancing capabilities of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) leads many defense experts to predict that the Joint Strike Fighter could be the last manned fighter ever built. The Pentagon selected Boeing over Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in 1999 to lead development of the UCAV Advanced Technology Demonstration program. The $131 million project, which includes $21 million from Boeing, is directed by the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency and Air Force. 

The target cost of each plane is between $10 million and $15 million, or about one-third the cost of next-generation fighter planes. 

Air Force officials envision the X-45 taking part in strikes against enemy radar and surface-to-air missile batteries. The 8,000-pound craft is designed to carry 3,000 pounds of guided bombs, making it twice as efficient as the typical manned fighter. 

The X-45 would be partially autonomous, with its pilot (who can fly several planes at once) remaining on the ground, out of harm's way. This would be particularly useful for Close-Air-Support missions in unhealthy environments. - Adam Geibel

 


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