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January 12, 2011

Phantom Ray


Lost in all the media coverage of video showing the Chengdu J-20 taxiing along the runway last week and taking to the air this week was another video suggesting fifth generation fighters may soon be made effectively irrelevant.

Defensetech hosts video of Boeing’s Phantom Ray stealth UAV being shipped to Edwards Air Force Base in California aboard the old 747-based Space Shuttle Transporter (video at the link).

The Phantom Ray is part of Boeing’s internally-funded effort to develop stealthy, combat UAVs. It piggybacks on the company’s old X-45 offering for the Navy’s competition to develop an unmanned combat air system. That plane lost the Navy contest to Northrop’s X-47.

More background on various iterations of the X-45 Phantom Ray.

Air dominance stealth UAVs would provide two advantages to the USAF in taking on an hypothetical peer competitor such as the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force. UAVs can be built for previously unmatched combat tolerance and performance specifications, for example, making high gravity turns which would kill a pilot. And perhaps even more important given today's sensititivities, unmanned drones can be deployed in contexts where the life of a pilot would not be risked.

The Phantom Ray is not only a platform for testing UAVs in an air dominance role, however, but a harbinger of a more profound change to come. This is not only intended to be an unmanned aircraft but an unmanned and autonomous aircraft.

Skynet, here we come.

Unlike earlier generation drones serving with the military in hot spots such as Afghanistan, where the aircraft is remotely controlled from the ground by a pilot using a joy stick, the Phantom Ray is capable of completely autonomous operation without the need for anyone to be at the controls, according to Boeing.

It’s more fly-by-mouse than fly-by wire. You upload a mission profile to the Phantom Ray’s onboard computer and the aircraft runs the entire mission from takeoff through mission and landing without the needs for human intervention or control unless the need arises to make changes in the mission profile.

Corollary: We are building our own peer competitor.


All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

One of my favourite micro-genres: Defense industry corporate videos. They have a stilted quality you can't fake.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 12, 2011 06:59 AM