At least that’s the Air Force’s official position. Secretly, however, the flying branch could be working on at least two new high-tech UAVs optimized for the most intensive future air wars. Ace aviation reporter Bill Sweetman has gathered evidence of new stealth drones under development by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — the latter potentially armed, and both drawing on classified funds. If these robots are real, the Air Force’s drone era is not only not ending — it’s barely begun.
To be clear, no one thinks unmanned aircraft are becoming any less vital to Washington’s shadowy counter-terrorism campaigns in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and, possibly soon, Mali. Missile-armed Predators, the larger Reapers carrying bombs and missiles, and stealthy, unarmed Sentinel spy drones, operated jointly by the CIA and the military, are still America’s weapon of choice for hunting terrorist leaders. Three years ago then-CIA director Leon Panetta, now the defense secretary, called UAVs the “only game in town” for disrupting the core of al-Qaida.