"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm one that's inclined to believe that." -- Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff
Admiral Mullen's quote is just so spot-on to the theme of this column (now entering its eighth iteration) that I just might make it our official motto.
But today we're going to start off our coverage of flying model airplanes ... that kill with another, more ancient, quip. Pull out your old Betamax, and toss in your old dubbed-from-cable-TV video copy of the 1983 thriller WarGames:
Joshua: "Shall we play a game?"
David Lightman: "Yeah ... love to! How about Global Thermonuclear War?"
UAVs play WarGames
Our lead story this week comes straight from the pages of next month's issue of Popular Science, where the techno-sleuths have dug up rumors of a secret super-weapon the Air Force is kicking around: the "Blackout Bomb" …
... which isn't a bomb …
... and would be considered a failure if it caused an actual blackout.
Snuggle up to the Cold War
You see, back in the bad ol' days, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. relied on a doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) to keep each other's nastier natures in check. Toward the end of the "war" however, a new concept emerged that threatened to derail the whole crazy construct: the electromagnetic pulse (EMP). The idea was simple. Explode a nuclear weapon way up in the sky, and while it might not fry people, the electromagnetic radiation it released would fry the heck out of most modern electronics, throwing everything within the EMP's effective radius back into the Stone Age.
Fast forward your Betamax 25 years, and the Air Force has resurrected the concept in a less strategic, more tactical form. The current plan is to develop a directed microwave emitter that can be mounted on an aircraft, flown into bad-guy territory, and fired right at the military electronics that you want to fry, as opposed to the civilian infrastructure. Fly into Tehran in the summer, knock out all the radar stations, but leave the A/C on … oh, and of course, don't damage the baby-milk factories.
According to PopSci, the ideal carrier for this weapon -- let's give it a name: The "UFmO," or Unidentified Flying microwave Oven -- would be not a piloted, hundred-million-dollar fighter jet like Lockheed Martin's (NYSE: LMT ) F-35, but rather an unmanned aerial vehicle such as the Phantom Ray that Boeing (NYSE: BA ) is said to have in the works.
For my money, though, the better bet on this technology coming to fruition ($40 million has been appropriated, but a prototype isn't due out till 2012) is Raytheon (NYSE: RTN ) . Not just because I'm now on record thinking the stock is a killer investment, but because the firm already has a top-notch microwave weapons department, and has plans in the works to scale up its tiny KillerBee UAV -- perhaps to a size suitable for carrying the UFmO.
A new weapon and a ready delivery system, all wrapped up in one neat package? Can't beat that with a stick.
And speaking of beating ...
Continuing our coverage of all things UAV, over in Europe, the natives are taking their usual "we don't want to join 'em, so let's beat 'em" attitude to the whole UAV craze. Worried that Textron (NYSE: TXT ) , Lockheed, Boeing and all the rest are developing a commanding lead in this industry (why, even groundhog General Dynamics (NYSE: GD ) now has a UAV), the European Aeronautics Defense & Space Co. is asking the governments of Germany, France, Spain, and Turkey to ante up a combined $2 billion for developmental costs to jumpstart a homegrown UAV industry based on its Talarion UAV concept. All told, a package of 15 planes would UAV's would cost the sponsoring nations upwards of $4 billion after production.
Meanwhile, back Stateside, generals are already getting product for their money. Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) landed a $400 million contract in June, manufacturing engines for installation in General Atomics' MQ-9 Reaper UAV.
Next door at Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) , the defense contractor rolled out its next-generation RQ-4 Block 40 Global Hawk. The Global Hawk UAV has already logged more than 31,000 hours in U.S. service, while "Block 40" begins flight testing this month (don't look up), with the first of 15 units scheduled for delivery to the USAF next year. The plane can fly unmanned spy missions at altitudes of 60,000 and up (nearly as high as the venerable U-2) for more than 32 hours at a time.
From UAVs to EMPs to high-altitude spy planes, everything old is new again -- and it's a brave new world for those of us playing the UAV trend. My advice: Heed Admiral Mullen's prescient prediction, and invest accordingly.
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