Today, multiple nations are seeking to develop an autonomous combat aircraft, but the efforts to create such an unmanned war bird actually date back to the late 1990s. For it was then that the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) and the United States Air Force chose Boeing to build two X-45A air vehicles and a mission control station under the J-UCAS Advanced Technology Demonstration program.
X-45A: The History
The program was meant to determine how an autonomous unmanned aircraft could be used to attack opposing surface-to-air defenses – or Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD). In September 2000, Boeing’s “Phantom Works” completed the first of the two prototype aircraft, and it utilized research from its manned Bird of Prey aircraft, the single-seat stealth technology demonstrator used to test “low-observable” stealth aircraft as well as new methods of aircraft design and construction.
During the test program, the X-45A was able to accomplish numerous significant achievements in military aviation history. The X-45A proved to be the first modern unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed specifically for combat strike missions. It features a stealthy, swept-wing design with fully retractable landing gear and a composite, fiber-reinforced epoxy skin. Its fuselage could house two internal weapons bays.
In its first flight on May 22, 2002, the X-45A, nicknamed the “Elsie May,” flew for 14 minutes at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., where it reached an airspeed of 195 knots (224 mph, 361 kph) and altitude of 7,500 feet (2286 meters). The flight characteristics and basic aspects of aircraft operations, particularly the command and control link between the aircraft and the mission-control station, were demonstrated successfully.
The aircraft completed a 10-day schedule of test flights in March 2004, which included dropping a 250lb inert Small Smart Bomb (SSB). The X-45A air vehicle successfully released the unguided weapon from its internal weapon bay at an altitude of 35,000ft and speed Mach 0.67 (about 442mph)
A second test vehicle was produced that same year, and in August 2004 for the first time, one pilot-operator was able to successfully control two X-45As in flight. Flight tests successfully concluded in 2005.
You Can See the X-45A Right Now
In October 2006, after 64 unprecedented flights and many firsts in autonomous combat aviation, the two X-45A unmanned combat air vehicles were sent to two of the country’s prominent aviation museums to be permanently displayed. The first of the two aircraft went to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where it is now on display in the Research & Development Gallery; while the second prototype went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Boeing design for the larger X-45C went on to serve as the basis for the internally funded Phantom Ray Demonstrator.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.