A New Bomber with No Pilot?

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Ethan Miller / Getty

An MQ-9 Reaper flies by on a training mission August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the wars the U.S. is now waging in Iraq, Afghanistan and — yes — Pakistan, knows that the U.S. military and the CIA have mastered a new way of killing bad guys. Instead of dispatching pilots into hostile skies to dodge enemy missiles and anti-aircraft fire, they're increasingly targeting suspects using missiles and bombs carried on unmanned drones, some of them controlled from as far away as greater Las Vegas. Advocates say such unmanned systems are just as accurate and cheaper and don't put U.S. personnel at risk.

Now that the Air Force has indicated that it needs a new bomber flying by 2018 — not that long in weapons-development terms — some in the Pentagon are asking whether the time has come to build a bomber that can fly itself. "While some might not take exception to an unmanned strike aircraft capable of carrying a small number of weapons," a new report from the Congressional Research Service says, "the debate could be quite different about an unmanned nuclear-capable bomber aircraft able to carry close to 30,000 pounds of advanced weapons."

Supporters of the unmanned option in the Pentagon and elsewhere say drones can do many jobs more cheaply than piloted aircraft can. Predators flying over Iraq cost only 10% as much, per flight hour, as an F-16, and with no risk to U.S. personnel, they argue. But the Air Force has long been run by fighter pilots, and even though younger ones are less wedded to manned platforms than their older comrades, there remains a reluctance to embrace drones wholeheartedly. "The Air Force was born and bred around manned aircraft," a senior Pentagon official says. "When you start talking about moving from human to silicon inside the cockpit, it challenges the infrastructural integrity of the institution."

Still, the demand for drones in the war zones has skyrocketed, even as the service's hot new F-22 fighter has yet to see any action over Afghanistan or Iraq. Next year, for the first time in its history, the Air Force plans to buy more unmanned aircraft (52) than regular planes (41). "If there is a growth industry inside our United States Air Force," says General John Corley, chief of Air Combat Command, "I would say it's in unmanned aerial systems."

More than 80% of the video being watched by commands in Afghanistan and Iraq is coming from drones. The demand for Air Force pilots able to control Predators from bases in Nevada is so high that they are frozen in their current jobs and unable to return to manned aircraft. "There are some people that have left the Predator system — gone back for requalification in existing systems like the F-16 — and have returned back over to other operational assignments, such as Korea," Corley. "We've had to reach back into the system and say, 'You're going back into the Predator.' "

Both Congress and the Pentagon in recent years have pushed the Air Force to make at least a third of what the military calls "long-range strike aircraft" unmanned. In 2001, Congress ordered that to happen by 2010, but so far in that category it has only ten MQ-9 Reapers — capable of dropping 500-pound bombs, just like F-16s. The new bomber will have to be at least "unmannable" — capable of being flown with a crew or without — if the Air Force wants to show itself to be following orders.

But skeptics in the Air Force and elsewhere say shifting from relatively small drones to remotely flown globe-girdling bombers is a huge leap that can't be done in the next decade. The new bomber needs "to be able to hold targets at risk, and target not just things fixed but potentially things mobile," Corley said. "To be able to do that by 2018 tells me that I probably cannot make increment No. 1 unmanned" — meaning that the Air Force wants at least the first batch of bombers to require pilots.

The three companies capable of building such planes — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — all agree that unmanned bombers could be built by 2018. Boeing and Lockmart have teamed up to bid for the $10 billion contract to develop the new bomber, and Northrop has hinted it plans to make its own bid. Northrop beat Boeing last year for a $635 million Navy contract to develop carrier-launched unmanned attack drones slated to be flying by 2025. Company officials hint they may try to convince the Air Force that the unmanned route makes the most sense for its new bomber too.