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Thursday, March 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boeing's robotic plane: All ready, but homeless

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Boeing's first St. Louis-made X-45C, an unmanned robotic plane designed for the Air Force, is shiny and new, and ready to roll. But there's a problem.

It has no place to go.

The Pentagon doesn't want the X-45C. The Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program, which included nearly $800 million to build three X-45C planes, officially has been scrapped.

Boeing confirmed Tuesday that it had canceled a VIP ceremony scheduled this month to mark the delivery of the first X-45C to the Air Force.

In a recent interview, at a time when Boeing was still planning its ceremony, a Boeing executive said the end of the Air Force's X-45C program doesn't spell the end of the plane.

"Programs come and go," said Jim Albaugh, chief executive of Boeing's St. Louis-based defense business. "But if you have the right capabilities, you're going to be OK over the long haul."

He said Boeing, which has more than 300 employees in the Puget Sound region also working on the program, will compete and try to win the contract for the Navy's aircraft carrier-based unmanned aircraft program. Its chief competitor probably will be Northrop Grumman, which had been competing for the Air Force contract with its robotic plane, the X-47.

However, the Northrop unmanned vehicle may have the advantage in the Navy competition, because it was designed from the start to land on an aircraft carrier, whereas the X-45 could land only on a runway.

Boeing said it believes the X-45C's technology can be crafted to meet the Navy's concept for using robotic planes to gather intelligence and conduct long-range surveillance and reconnaissance missions from aircraft carriers.

Last month, the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, a top-to-bottom analysis of how defense resources are allocated, concluded that robotic planes will play a bigger role in the U.S. arsenal. The Pentagon's fiscal 2007 budget includes $907 million for robotic planes, a 23 percent increase over the 2006 budget.

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Boeing's unmanned plane program started in 1998. The X-45A, a precursor to the X-45C, flew several dozen test missions, including the dropping of a precision bomb.

The first X-45C was slated for delivery for ground testing this year in California. The first flight was supposed to happen next year.

A Boeing spokesman said he didn't know how far along production of the second X-45C in St. Louis had come.

The X-45C was designed to knock out enemy air-defense systems, complementing the role of traditional fighter jets. It was designed to fly at 40,000 feet and carry 4,500 pounds of weapons while conducting combat missions deep into enemy territory.

Boeing hoped it would begin full production of the planes sometime in the next decade.

For now, it's back to the drawing board.

"These programs have been restructured and canceled and resurrected a half dozen times over the last couple of years," Albaugh said. "And I think we'll be in good shape as these programs get reconfigured."

Information from Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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