January 17, 2006:
The U.S. Department of Defense has decided to make the next generation heavy bomber an unmanned aircraft. The Department of Defense also wants the new aircraft in service by the end of the next decade, some twenty years ahead of schedule. At the same time, the current combat UAV program (J-UCAS, run by the air force and navy) is to be changed as well. The current X45 project will be split up, with the air force and navy allowed to develop a shorter range combat aircraft to suit their particular needs. These will be bombers, with some air-to-air capabilities. The X45 was meant mainly for those really dangerous bombing missions, early on, when enemy air defenses have to be destroyed. But the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the J-UCAS developers were coming up with an aircraft that could replace all current fighter-bombers. This was partly because of the success of the X45 in reaching its development goals, and the real-world success of the Predator (in finding, and attacking, targets) and Global Hawk (in finding stuff after flying half way around the world by itself.)
The X45 program started out, two years ago, as a DARPA research project. But last Fall, it was taken from DARPA and given to the air force, with orders to move as quickly as possible. At that time, the plan was to build the X45C version and get it through all the tests needed to certify it for combat. At the time, it was thought another four years would be needed to do that. Now, no one is sure it will take that long.
The X45A has passed tests with formation flying, and dropping a JDAM (actually the new 250 pound SDB version). The X45C will carry eight SDB (250 pound small diameter bombs), or up to 4500 pounds of other JDAMs. The X45A has already shown it can fly in formation. The X45C will weigh in at about 19 tons, have a 2.2 ton payload and be 39 feet long (with a 49 foot wingspan.) The X-45A, built for development only, is 27 feet long, has a wingspan of 34 feet and has a payload of 1.2 tons. The X-45C will be able to hit targets 2,300 kilometers away and be used for bombing and reconnaissance missions. Each X-45C will probably cost about $30 million, depending on how extensive, and expensive, its electronic equipment will be.
The one topic no one wants to touch at the moment is air-to-air. This appears to be the last job left for pilots of combat aircraft. The geeks believe they have this one licked, and are giving the pilot generals the, "bring it on" look. The generals are not keen to test their manned aircraft against a UAV, but this will change the minute another country, like China or Russia, demonstrates that they are seriously moving in that direction.