Boeing's takes X-45C out of storage, renames it Phantom Ray

Published 12 May 2009

The proposed 2010 U.S. defense budget is historic at least in one respect: for the first time, the U.S. Air Force will be buying more unmanned flying systems than manned ones; Boeing takes its X-45C unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) out of storage and renames it Phantom Ray; it will be completed and readied for flight by the end of 2010, and will be suitable for missions including ISR, SEAD, electronic attack, hunter/killer, and autonomous aerial refueling

The growing U.S. reliance on UAVs to carry out military and intelligence missions has two consequences. First, the administration’s proposed 2010 defense budget show that, for the first time, the U.S. Air Force will acquire more unmanned flying systems than manned ones. Second, various futuristic UAV projects which had been mothballed are coming back.

Here is an example of the second trend. Boeing has announced plans to fly an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) testbed — the Phantom Ray — in December 2010. Graham Warwick writes that if the aircraft looks familiar, this is because it is: it is the X-45C that was completed, but never flown, when the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program was canceled back in 2006 (Amy Butler has exclusive photographs of the aircraft and analysis of Boeing’s plans in the latest issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology).

Warwick says that it only fitting that the Phantom Ray will finally fly. Teamed with DARPA and the U.S. Air Force, Boeing was first to demonstrate an autonomous attack aircraft — the X-45A UCAV. In February 2005 two X-45As demonstrated autonomous, reactive suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), all the way to weapon release. J-UCAS was to be the follow-on program, still led by DARPA, but now involving the U.S. Navy as well as the Air Force.

There is money to be made in the program. Boeing was awarded a $747 million contract in October 2004 to build three larger, stealthier X-45Cs. Northrop Grumman was also awarded a contract to build two X-47Bs. The J-UCAS program, however, was canceled in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, in large part because Air Force interest had turned toward a much larger long-range strike aircraft, which eventually emerged as the Next Generation Bomber (NGB).

J-UCAS was canceled in March 2006, just as Boeing was about to roll out the first X-45C. What remained of the program was transferred to the Navy, which held a competition for the Naval Unmanned Combat Air System carrier demonstrator. Boeing offered a “navalized” X-45C, dubbed the X-45N, but Northrop — predictably, when you think of it — won with its carrier-ready X-47B and was awarded a $636 million contract in August 2007 to complete the two aircraft started for J-UCAS and conduct at-sea carrier suitability demonstrations in 2011.

The first X-45C, along with a partially complete second aircraft, was mothballed in storage until late last year, when Boeing decided it should get back into the prototyping business. Now the first aircraft, renamed the Phantom Ray, will be completed and readied for flight by the end of 2010. Warwick writes that Boeing plans to conduct ten flights over about six months to show the craft’s potential for missions including ISR, SEAD, electronic attack, hunter/killer, and autonomous aerial refueling.

Warwick notes that the unveiling of the Phantom Ray comes hard on the heels of U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates’s 7 April announcement that the NGB program is to be deferred and his comments that perhaps the next Air Force bomber could be unmanned. We came back full circle to “where we were before March 2006, when the J-UCAS program was planning to demonstrate technology for future unmanned strike/surveillance platforms,” Warwick concludes.