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Originally published December 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 8, 2005 at 2:35 PM

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Corrected version

New wings for warfare

Boeing displayed its vision of the future of air warfare Tuesday, a batlike model of a small fighter craft that exudes silent menace. Sitting in a parking...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing displayed its vision of the future of air warfare Tuesday, a batlike model of a small fighter craft that exudes silent menace.

Sitting in a parking lot inside Boeing's research complex across from the Museum of Flight, the craft has a 49-foot wingspan and measures 39 feet from nose tip to tail. Smart bombs hang down below the wings.

But it has no windows. And its profile is flat, four feet from top to bottom. At the front, where the cockpit should be, there's a gaping hole for engine air intake. The Boeing-designed X-45 is unmanned.

The airplane is "piloted" by someone watching a computer screen in a fortified trailer that can be deployed near a war zone. "This is fly by mouse," said Dave Koopersmith, X-45 vice president and program manager. The aircraft's sensors identify and approach targets autonomously. The remote pilot gives consent to strike with a mouse click.

More than 300 Boeing employees in the Puget Sound region are working on the $1.2 billion program, originally run by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The military already is using unmanned aircraft to deadly effect. An unmanned Predator, made by General Atomics, is reported to have killed a high-ranking al-Qaida commander in Pakistan last week.

Yet there are serious questions as to the long-term funding of the next-generation X-45-type unmanned aircraft. Richard Aboulafia, industry analyst with the Teal Group, called the program "the worst-funded good idea in decades" and said it's unclear if the budget to produce combat versions will be there.

Boeing originally built two smaller concept models, the X-45As, which passed flight tests and successfully bombed targets. On display Tuesday was a plastic mock-up of the X-45C, a larger model under construction in St. Louis.

Where the Predator is slow and low-flying, a relatively easy target from the ground, the new Boeing jet has the speed and altitude of a manned fighter plane, albeit with greater range.

Flying at Mach 0.8 at an altitude of 40,000 feet, the X-45 will have a range of up to 1,500 miles, compared with about 600 miles for a Boeing-built F-18 manned fighter jet.

And while the Predator carries a couple of small missiles, the X-45 can carry two 2,000-pound smart bombs or eight small-diameter bombs.

Its mission includes long-range, pre-emptive strikes against enemy air defenses. "One requirement is being able to knock down the door on the first day of the war," Koopersmith said.

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That's the type of mission that puts military pilots in harm's way. The Pentagon wants unmanned aircraft in all shapes and sizes to cut down casualties — and to cut costs.

Koopersmith said no pricing data are available, but "historically, we price it by the pound." The X-45 has an empty weight of 18,000 pounds, 10 percent lighter than the small single-seater manned fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-16.

At that weight, said Teal's Aboulafia, a manned fighter would cost about $40 million and an unmanned one that could do without pilot-centered systems might cost $25 million to $28 million, depending on production rates.

Koopersmith said Boeing foresees a market for hundreds of X-45s.

First though, Boeing will have to beat General Atomics and get further funding.

Northrop is developing a competing X-47 that looks remarkably similar to the X-45. The Department of Defense has funded both companies for four more years of flight testing and demonstrations. Then it will choose between the models.

If Boeing beats Northrop in this design phase and wins a production contract, "a real weapons system will cost billions more," Aboulafia said.

"It's a long ways from serious revenue for Boeing," he said.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com Researcher David Turim contributed to this report

Information in this article, originally published December 7, 2005, was corrected December 8, 2005. A previous version of this story stated that an unmanned aircraft called the Predator is made by Northrop Grumman. In fact the Predator is made by General Atomics of San Diego, Calif. Northrop Grumman makes another unmanned aircraft, the Global Hawk, and is a subcontractor on the Predator.

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