Ultimately, the answer to the UCAV-versus-fighter debate is that we don´t know the answer yet-partly because the promise of the UCAV technology has yet to be realized, and partly because it´s impossible to know how internal Air Force politics will play out. The same Rumsfeld memo that cut back the Raptor program also threw a major glitch into the UCAV: It will be taken from DARPA and given to the Air Force, where many suspect that the ruling elite of fighter pilots will throttle it, or at least suppress it until the Air Force has secured its fleet of F-35s and Raptors. "The fighter mafia that runs the Air Force has made several runs at the program to kill it," says our unidentified source, who is close to the UCAV project.
Air Force leaders state in public that they support the UCAV, but in a form that doesn´t directly threaten the fighter. Says Jumper: "People ask me all the time, ´Do you guys feel your job is threatened?´ No. Because the things this is going to do are going to be things you can´t do in a conventional airplane." Jumper and former Air Force Secretary James Roche raised the idea of a "flying Coke machine" UCAV that would orbit high above the battlefield with a variety of bombs and release them on command from ground observers.
Backers of autonomous combat aircraft are, for the time being, willing to position the unmanned aircraft as a long-range, heavy-payload complement to a fighter, rather than an alternative-but privately they don´t expect to hold that position forever. "We don´t want to get in a fight with anybody," our source says. "But when we get flying, someone will say: ´For crying out loud, this does 90 percent of the mission at half the cost."