"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter. I'm one that's inclined to believe that."
-- Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff

But all of a sudden, Adm. Mullen is starting to look lonely, sitting there in his remote-control cockpit. You see, the admiral may believe there's no need for pilots in planes anymore, but some of the biggest names in unmanned-aerial-vehicle building are begging to differ.

Names like General Atomics (GA). The once-upon-a-time unit of General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) has made a name for itself, putting pilotless drones to prowling the skies over Iraq. It's still doing big business there, and in Afghanistan as well. But rather than sit (or soar) on its unmanned aerial laurels, GA is also parlaying its expertise in unmanned aircraft into a bid to help build manned planes as well.

Late last month, GA announced it's partnering with Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) subsidiary Hawker Beechcraft to help put together a manned reconnaissance aircraft based on the Beechcraft King Air 350 turboprop. Now, this isn't an exclusive project: GA's straddling fuselages, and saying its "Griffin Eye" intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) payload could be appropriate for use in "other aircraft" (Embraer (NYSE: ERJ) and Textron (NYSE: TXT) build planes of similar size to the King Air). It's not even GA's only foray into manned aviation; the company already offers its Lynx Synthetic Aperture Radar for use on both manned and unmanned aircraft. But it is a move in an unexpected direction for the UAV star.

And now for something completely different
Less unexpected is Boeing's (NYSE: BA) announcement that it's proceeding with plans to develop new manned fighter jets of its own -- but this time, under the Navy's "next generation air dominance" program. The planes in question, dubbed "F/A-XX," aim to duplicate the stealth capabilities of the now-defunct Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) F-22, and the air-to-air capability of the old Grumman F-14.

The twist? Boeing's taking Adm. Mullen's words literally, and interpreting them liberally, to build a full-sized fighter aircraft that isn't necessarily "manned" at all (but can be). The concept, dubbed "optionally piloted," mimics United Technologies' (NYSE: UTX) approach to the new robotic Black Hawk. When necessary, the F/A-XX could carry a pilot. When not, not. On dangerous missions, F/A-XX could be flown entirely by remote control.

Which sounds to me like a good hedging of bets. The fact that Boeing's technically hewing to the admiral's marching orders can't hurt its chances, either.

For more on defense investing:

General Dynamics is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection, but Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.