Unmanned combat aircraft not only save lives; they don't sleep and so can focus on a task indefinitely. But lacking a human brain--what one pilot calls "the five-pound shoulder-mounted computer"--they can't be trusted to tell a Scud from a school bus without the help of an operator on the ground. If the radio link
is lost, UCAVs go dumb. Given such limitations, how elaborate should unmanned combat aircraft be? The original 1999-era UCAV, the X-45A, was to cost around $10 million and carry 1,500 pounds of bombs. But the military is now mulling the X-45C, an F-16-size craft that would carry 2 tons of bombs. Plans revealed in March call for the Air Force to have 36 such combat-ready UCAVs by 2010. Pentagon officials insist the beefed-up specs are needed: Their new UCAV will be stealthy, which the Predator is not, twice as swift as Predator, and have greater range and endurance. Says UCAV program manager Col. Earl Wyatt: "If we can do the same thing as everyone else, the answer will be, thank you, no, I've already got it."