New push for robotic aircraft

Military is arming drones for use in bombing runs and dangerous missions.

The swagger of attack plane pilots is an American legend. The drive and bravado of those who fly armed aircraft has been a staple subject of movies from "The Blue Max" to "The Right Stuff" and "Top Gun."

But soon some aces might be operating from desktops instead of cockpits. Call it "Top Cursor": the era of armed pilotless planes flown by remote control.

Backed by several branches of the military, a new generation of lethal robotic planes is poised to take a major step forward. One is scheduled to be tested this fall. Within 15 years, pilotless aircraft could make up as much as one-third of the military's air-strike capability.

"This is the wave of the future," says defense expert Ivan Eland of the CATO Institute, a Washington think-tank.

Backers envision three different uses for armed, pilotless aircraft. One is for dangerous missions, such as destroying an enemy's air-defense missiles.

"You'd like to take the pilot out of the cockpit if you could" on such a risky flight, says Robert Martinage, a senior defense analyst specializing in futuristic weapons at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in Washington.

The second purpose is for "dirty" missions, such as flying through airspace contaminated by chemical or biological weapons. Ideally, pilots shouldn't be on these flights, either.

The third is for so-called "dull" missions, such as observing enemy air defenses by flying near them for 24 hours. Machines should be able to do this as well as humans.

A different kind of predator

Pilotless planes are nothing new. Some, named Predators, were used by the American military to observe the battlefield and the enemy during the fighting in Kosovo. But those planes were unarmed: Producing pilotless planes that carry arms is a dramatic new development. The deployment of such weapons "is closer than one might think," says Mr. Eland.

Not only would they reduce the number of pilots killed or captured, backers say, but they should be cheaper to produce and maintain than corresponding planes with pilots.

Virginia's Sen. John Warner (R), a power on military issues, recently told then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen that the aircraft could make up more than 30 percent of the US aerial arsenal by 2015.

They do have critics, though. The idea of having bomb-laden planes aloft, with no human aboard, worries some people, well aware that computers and other high-tech gear sometimes go awry.

What if an enemy electronically disrupts communications between a plane and its ground-based operator, critics ask? Proponents answer that if all else fails, the plane would simply return to its base.

Currently, two major military projects are under way to develop planes that would carry armaments. The one slated to take its first prototype flight this fall is being developed by the Boeing Co. for the Air Force. Twenty-six feet long, it's hard to detect on radar, has a range of 1,000 miles, and can fly 40,000 feet high. It's ultimately intended to carry a dozen 250-pound bombs. One operator on the ground is supposed to be able to control between three and five of them.

Once this plane reaches production, it is supposed to cost between $10 million and $15 million apiece. As of this time, says Mr. Martinage, it is expected to be operational about the year 2010.

Like any dramatically new weapon, it depends in part on technology that has yet to be proven. A critical element in this plane, says Martinage, is the command-and-control system, which links it to the operator. Tests, he says, must show that the system is capable of operating the plane under all conditions.

The second major system is being developed by the Navy, which wants a plane that can travel a 680-mile radius, and carry 3,970 pounds of weapons.

No contractor has yet been selected. Northrup Grumman Corp. has built a prototype of its proposal, called Pegasus, which could be flight tested this year. Boeing has developed a concept, though not yet a prototype.

Shot at a moving target

In addition, the Air Force has begun testing Predators - the Kosovo-conflict craft - as platforms for small missiles. Three months ago an unmanned Predator fired a missile at a stationery tank and destroyed it. Another test, this time at a moving target, is expected shortly.

Even if one or more of these test programs leads to an armed, pilotless plane that the military uses widely, analysts do not foresee pilots becoming a thing of the past, at least not for decades. Pilotless planes "are going to be an addition" to manned military craft, not a replacement for them, says Baker Crane, a Heritage Foundation defense analyst. "The pilot in the loop is still critical to the performance of some missions."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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