Lockheed Says F-35 Could Fly Pilotless

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England unveiled Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in July.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England unveiled Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in July. (By Mike Fuentes -- Bloomberg News)

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By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lockheed Martin Corp. has proposed an unmanned version of its Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, which would make it the first full-scale fighter to operate without a pilot and signal the Bethesda weapons maker's push into the growing market for drone aircraft.

The idea has been in the works for two years, Lockheed Vice President Frank Mauro said at a briefing yesterday. He provided few details but said the plane could be built as an interchangeable hybrid -- manned by a pilot for some missions and operated remotely for others.

The Joint Strike Fighter, funded with help from several other countries, is meant to replace the F-16 as the workhorse fighter of the United States and its close allies. Less powerful than the F-22 Raptor that Lockheed developed to give the United States an advantage in air combat, the Joint Strike Fighter is still designed to travel at supersonic speed and carry up to 15,000 pounds of bombs and missiles.

Test flights of the F-35 are expected to begin later this year. The idea of a remote-control version of the plane has not been pitched to the Air Force, though it has been through the company's conceptual design phase, Lockheed officials said.

Air Force officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Yesterday's briefing marked a strategic turn for Lockheed, which for years has stayed publicly on the sidelines as the Pentagon increased its spending on unmanned systems.

Such competitors as Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. are entrenched in the market, with products such as Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk surveillance drone, which is deployed overseas.

Lockheed ceded the market in the late 1990s while it focused on winning the contract to build what many predict will be the Air Force's last manned fighter jet, the F-35. Lockheed then feared that the unmanned market could diminish demand for its more expensive fighter jets, analysts said.

"When you think about unmanned combat systems, I think about Boeing," said John E. Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org.

But in the past three to four years, Lockheed's aeronautics division has spent 30 to 40 percent of its internal research-and-development budget on unmanned systems, company officials said. That includes $21 million the company has spent on the Polecat, a prototype drone that Lockheed plans to test at 60,000 feet or above this year. At a briefing yesterday, the firm trumpeted a stable of unmanned systems that can run on the ground, hauling equipment and supplies for troops, and underwater, searching for submarines and mines. Some of the systems are still being developed and some are deployed in Iraq.

Much of the work is being done at Lockheed's research-and-development lab in California, known as the Skunk Works, where the U-2 spy plane was developed in secret in the 1950s.

Some of the company's investment "is playing catch-up for all those big dollars that the government has invested" in unmanned technology, and some is "leapfrogging" existing systems, Mauro said.

The Pentagon, looking to save money, has accelerated spending on unmanned systems since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. This year, it allocated $2 billion for unmanned aircraft and millions more in the supplemental budget, compared with $363 million in 2001. The figure is projected to reach more than $3 billion by the end of the decade.

What has resulted is a hodgepodge of unmanned vehicles, such as small, bomb-seeking robots that can be carried in a backpack, and airplanes that provide surveillance for days at a time. The systems have become bigger and more expensive in recent years, such as the Predator, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., and the Global Hawk, which has a 134-foot wingspan, comparable to the Boeing 737.

"Lockheed is playing catch-up and acknowledging that unmanned vehicles is a trend that is not going to go away," said Loren B. Thompson Jr., a defense industry analyst and Lockheed consultant. "It's going to be hard to penetrate a market where competitors are already established."

"We're looking at picking it up when we get enough customer interest, and that's the way they want to go," Mauro said. "Right now we're focused on getting the manned version of the F-35 flying."

While some analysts called the idea improbable, it could be an acknowledgment that the Pentagon's initial plan to buy about 2,000 F-35s is now considered likely to change -- in part because of improved drone technology. The decision to propose an unmanned F-35 may anticipate the day when all military aircraft are pilotless, analysts said.

The F-35 program has run into problems, including a rising price that is expected to reach $276 billion, up from the original estimate of $201 billion.

"I think they would be crazy not be looking at this," Pike said. "It's a foregone conclusion that at some point in the F-35 production program that [the Air Force is] going to decide we're going to replace the rest with unmanned systems." It would be smart "if Lockheed can come in and say, 'We have a solution for this.' "

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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