August 2005 
Volume 04, Issue 4 
Cover Story

‘We’re leading the pack’

Here’s how the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program and its vehicles are redefining the future of flight and warfare


'We're leading the pack'Two sleek, stealthy aircraft are majestically poised on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., ready to take to the skies. Nicknamed “Stingray 1” and “Stingray 2,” what distinguishes these Boeing Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems X-45A vehicles from other aircraft at the base isn’t just their futuristic, Hollywoodesque look. It’s that they will revolutionize the future of flight and warfare.

Boeing is making history in the 21st century with the unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that operates on a vastly complex computer system. These aircraft can engage in high-threat combat missions while the pilot safely carries out the mission from a remote ground location anywhere in the world. With Boeing’s game-changing J-UCAS X-45 program, certain air combat missions as we know them might just fly out the window. The UCAV concept of “fly-by-mouse” means the pilot, or operator, sits in a ground station instead of a cockpit and manages multiple vehicles in high-threat combat missions by a computer mouse instead of a stick and rudder. The pilot’s view is a computer console instead of the combat-zone skies.

X-45 milestones

Select milestones from the X-45 program

May 2002: X-45A completes first flight

November 2002: Second X-45A completes first flight

February 2003: All ground and flight objectives for first demonstration phase completed

April 2004: X-45A releases inert Global Positioning System–guided weapon on ground target

June 2004: X-45C assembly begins

August 2004: Two X-45As demonstrate first multivehicle, unmanned coordinated flight

December 2004: X-45A controlled via satellite, beyond “line of sight,” from 900 miles away

February 2005: X-45A completes 50th flight with first multivehicle simulated combat mission

May 2005: X-45A completes 52nd flight, demonstrating autonomous attack planning capability

The X-45A model, designed as an experimental aircraft, will transition to the more advanced J-UCAS X-45C. In 2006 Boeing is expected to complete the assembly of the first X-45C, with flight testing scheduled to begin in 2007. The X-45C will significantly increase the warfighter’s effectiveness in missions such as suppression of enemy air defenses; airborne electronic attacks; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“The J-UCAS X-45C continues Boeing’s proud heritage in unmanned systems and becomes the first member of a family of combat unmanned systems for the combat air forces,” said Darryl Davis, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems vice president, Global Strike Solutions. “It is an affordable, highly effective warfighting system that operates both autonomously and cooperatively with manned systems in a networked combat environment. The X-45 program’s success is attributed to the incredible work and dedication of Boeing employees who made this vision reality.”

“As far as I know, no one else is doing what we’re doing right now,” said Robert Horton, chief pilot of the J-UCAS X-45A for Boeing. “This is the future of many applications in aviation, and we’re leading the pack in combat.”

At NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards, Boeing has been testing and developing the X-45A to show it’s possible to have one pilot on the ground control more than one autonomous aircraft.

The X-45 program is a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems joint effort, which also involves NASA. It demonstrates the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value of a networked system of high-performance, unmanned air vehicles for the military. Boeing Phantom Works originally developed the UCAV for DARPA and the Air Force.

When DARPA awarded Boeing the UCAV contract in 1999, Boeing structured the X-45A program as a series of demonstrations that evolved into four phases, or blocks—gradually increasing mission functionalities in the autonomous system. This led to four major phases of software testing and associated demonstrations, including command and control, contingency management, logic and decision making, satellite communications, auto routing, weapons release, and multivehicle communications.

The X-45A is only 26.5 feet long (8.08 meters) with a body thickness of merely 3.7 feet (113 centimeters) and can carry eight weapons. It’s a powerful, technical wonder.

Two X-45A aircraftOn May 22, 2002, Boeing’s X-45A demonstrator made aviation history with its first flight at Edwards. This marked the birth of the first autonomous unmanned system for combat operations in a network-centric environment. Since then, Boeing and the X-45A team have accomplished nearly all required flights and ground demonstrations, including satellite communications testing from mission control 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) distant in Seattle, weapons testing by releasing a small smart bomb on a ground target, and simulated combat missions.

Currently, Boeing is nearing completion of the fourth and final phase before it transitions to the X-45C program.

But don’t think UCAVs take pilots out of the equation. To the contrary, pilots are still critical to UCAV operation. UCAVs aren’t intended to replace pilots; rather, they will perform missions in high-threat situations while the pilot sits safely miles away from the hot zone.


Starting up an aircraft with a laptop computer and “flying by mouse” are just a few of the differences of UCAV flight versus traditional piloting.

“As a UCAV pilot, you’re engaged in the same human decision making, such as identifying targets and making decisions on attack. It’s just on the ground instead,” Horton said.

“Airplanes fly on the mission plan and do the administrative part such as maintaining and adjusting altitude, landing gear activation, creating flight plans during missions, weapons release, takeoffs and landings,” said Horton, a former U.S. Air Force squadron commander and weapons system operator. “The strategic decision making is left to the pilot.”

Another difference is the pilots are managing a system of airplanes, not just one plane. The hardware—vehicle, ground control station, human systems interface and mission management—integrate with the software to create an open system where a single pilot, or operator, can control multiple vehicles.


Unmanned fliers to meet any need

Along with the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems X-45C, Boeing is developing or has in production a wide range of unmanned vehicles to give military planners just the right bird for any mission. They include

A160 Hummingbird (above)

Description: Autonomously flown rotorcraft UAV

Dimensions: 35 feet long, 36-foot rotor diameter (10.7 meters and 11 meters, respectively)

Range: 2,500 miles (4,020 kilometers), 24-hour endurance

Possible missions: Reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, communication relay and precision resupply

Unmanned Little Bird

Description: Boeing’s optionally unmanned version of MD 530F helicopter capable of autonomous flight.

Dimensions: 24 feet 6 inches long, 27-foot-4-inch rotor diameter (7.47 meters and 8.33 meters, respectively)

Possible missions: convoy and base protection, precision resupply, and communications relay

Description: Low-cost, long-endurance, runway-independent UAV currently deployed with U.S. Marines in Iraq and the U.S. Navy, joint program of Boeing and The Insitu Group

Dimensions: 4 feet long, 10-foot wingspan (122 centimeters and 305 centimeters, respectively)
Range: Current endurance, 15 hours; future variants, 30 hours

Missions: Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications relay

X-50A Dragonfly demonstrator

Description: Boeing and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency high-speed, vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that converts from rotorcraft to fixed-wing flight and back

Dimensions: 17 feet 8 inches long, 6 feet 6 inches high, 12-foot rotor diameter/wing span (5.38 meters, 1.98 meters and 3.66 meters, respectively)
Possible operational missions: reconnaissance, communications and data relay

Just like a traditional flight, pilots conduct preflight systems checks prior to takeoff, and communicate with mission control and air traffic management control towers. The UCAV taxis down the runway autonomously, and when it’s ready for takeoff the operator—with a click of the mouse—presses “go,” and the UCAV begins its mission.

“The whole key to designing the X-45 is that no one knows 10 years from now how computer-based actions will be deployed, so we’re making systems—including ground-station hardware—flexible to adapt to developing technology over the years,” Horton said.


For the X-45A test flights, the pilot sits in front of a command-and-control console. The UCAV is programmed with a preloaded mission plan and an “electronic order of battle” defining targets, among other preprogrammed data. During the mission, the UCAV continuously sends data to the pilot, who manages the information displayed on the computer screen. “You can’t predict what the planes are going to do in the combat area. It’s all based on the real-time situation,” said Horton. Real-time decisions the UCAV makes include altitude, speed and flight plan changes addressing pop-up threats.

The X-45As are autonomously using decision-making software to determine the best route of flight within the area of action and to detect weapons and danger. If a threat appears, the UCAV uses evasive maneuvers and develops a flight plan to attack ,explained Horton. That flight plan is then sent to the pilot on the ground. If the operator agrees with the flight plan, he or she will authorize the attack via a click of the computer mouse, and the aircraft then will drop the designated weapons.

Like traditional aircraft, the system must be reliable and have redundancies in case of a failure. For instance, if the pilot loses his or her primary communication link, the system autonomously swaps to the backup. The pilot also can override autonomous settings.

“The X-45A program has proven it is possible to employ autonomous air vehicles in a combat environment,” said Jim Martin, Boeing IDS director, J-UCAS X-45 System Test. “It is possible for a single pilot to manage multiple vehicles and for air vehicles to communicate with each other and make real-time decisions that lead to effective prosecution of an attack.”

“The pilot of the future will be managing information and responsible for top-level decision making,” Horton said.


With nearly all requirements achieved for the X-45A, Boeing’s next step is to transition from the X-45A model, designed as experimental aircraft to test technologies, to the far more capable X-45C model. This model will be designed to provide unprecedented range, persistence and survivability in hostile airspace.

The J-UCAS X-45C is the first unmanned system specifically designed for combat operations. The first X-45C will be 39 feet long with a 49-foot wingspan (11.9 meters by 14.9 meters) and will cruise at Mach 0.85 at an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,200 meters). The sleek body, only 4 feet (122 centimeters) thick, will have a weapons payload of 4,500 pounds (2,040 kilograms) with two internal weapons bays. The X-45C will be able to carry eight Small Diameter Bombs or the full range of Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition. It also can carry auxiliary fuel tanks or other payloads to support missions such as electronic attack.

Next, Boeing will build and flight-test three X-45C aircraft and two mission control elements and will integrate the J-UCAS Common Operating System that will allow unmanned aircraft systems to intraoperate with each other globally. The software Boeing created and tested on the X-45A may be offered as a candidate in the development of the Common Operating System.

“The X-45C will build directly off the experience, lessons learned and capabilities demonstrated on the X-45A,” Martin said. “It will be a larger vehicle with significantly more range and persistence. Stealth is a primary design driver. Stealth is key to the system’s ability to penetrate enemy airspace and destroy air defense systems.”

“Onboard planning and decision capabilities will make the X-45C a highly survivable platform. The Boeing X-45C will effectively and affordably fill critical gaps in key Air Force and Navy mission areas,” added David Koopersmith, Boeing J-UCAS X-45 vice president and program manager.

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