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The U.S. military has been using a variety of drones as targets in live-fire exercises. The Pentagon also has deployed drones in combat in order to distract enemy air defenses, most notably during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Navy drones dropped radar-foiling chaff.
A full-size stealthy drone that U.S. Air Force Academy cadets have been working on may serve for such purposes. The unnamed aircraft under development since 2007 will be tested in 2019 and could become the first aircraft designed by the academy to enter service with the U.S. Armed Forces.
The initial plan was to develop a full-size stealthy drone designed to challenge surface-to-air missile systems. According to the U.S. Air Force, the current version of the aircraft is 40 feet long with a 24-foot wingspan and nine-foot vertical tails. The aircraft uses two General Electric J85 turbojet engines, the same ones found in the service’s T-38 jet trainer.
The team is currently testing the design in the Academy’s wind tunnel, trying to make it backflip and crash. Once they know what circumstances will make the drone backflip, it can prevent it from happening on an actual aircraft.
If tests are successful, the drone design could be purchased by the Department of Defense or enter the prototyping phase, reports popularmechanics.com.
“As far as we know, this is the first large ‘stealthy’ target drone,” said Thomas McLaughlin, director of the Academy’s Aeronautic Research Center, before adding, “We don’t know what goes on in less-public programs.” However, some observers have speculated that F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters are being used for similar purposes. Although retired in 2008, a handful of F-117As are still flying, possibly to test U.S. sensors against stealthy airframes. An unmanned stealth drone would feature a more modern stealth profile and be cheaper to fly.