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Mother of the last American fighter pilot is already born

Clearly a bold statement…but how can that be?

 Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, stated “there are those that see the (F-35) as the last manned fighter- or fighter-bomber jet, and I am inclined to believe that.”

 The F-35 has already been test flown, and the training wing is activated at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Fla.  If Mullen is correct, and the F-35 is our nation’s last manned fighter jet, what will the service do to command the skies?

 Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are where U.S. services are headed, and at a breakneck pace. 

 Most Mississippians are unaware that our state is quietly becoming a key player in the burgeoning field of unmanned aerospace devices.

In the past, aircraft without pilots were called drones.  Their main purpose was to serve as targets for pilots in training exercises.  The common term now is “UAVs,” although the military more often uses “UAS,” for unmanned aerial systems, as the modern unmanned vehicle, with its amazing payload of optics, sensors and weapons, is controlled from the ground.

The vehicle itself, with a few notable high-altitude exceptions, is not very complicated.  Its state-of-the-art payload – electro-optical devices focused with high-resolution optics on suspected targets – is what makes the difference in combat.  More advanced systems use infrared imaging, lasers, radar and low-light TV to ”morph” information into a picture of amazing clarity for a pilot, a weapons controller or a field commander.

Advanced military versions also carry laser-guided bombs and missiles to home in on enemy targets with pinpoint accuracy.  These RPVs, or remotely piloted vehicles, are actually flown by Air Force pilots through satellite links half a world away.  But for simplification, let’s stick with the term UAS.

In our state, three different regions have a significant presence in the UAS field:  (1) the Gulf Coast, at the Trent Lott Airport in Pascagoula and the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, (2) the Pine Belt, at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Polymer Institute and the U. S. Army’s Camp Shelby and (3) the Golden Triangle, at Mississippi State’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory and Cochran Research Park and at GTR airport with Stark Aerospace and Aurora Flight Sciences.

 The Gulf Coast — Northrop-Grumman manufactures the Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter that the U. S. Navy calls the MQ-8B, at the Trent Lott Airport in Pascagoula.  In addition, some work on the Global Hawk, our premier military reconnaissance UAS, is being done there.

The Stennis Space Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) serve as hosts for the Northern Gulf Institute, an MSU-led multi-university consortium that monitors the Gulf’s ecosystem.  UAS-provided information can make possible ”real time” pictures of changes to the environment as they occur. 

Hattiesburg — At USM in Hattiesburg, the Polymer Institute works on prototypes of lightweight and super-strong composite materials for UAVs.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only permits UAV operations in restricted airspace, which makes Camp Shelby ideally suited for unmanned flight operations.  The U.S. Army National Guard is currently receiving the Shadow UAS, and Camp Shelby could become a Southeast UAS regional training center for National Guard units.

The Golden Triangle — The growing aerospace manufacturing cluster in the Starkville/Columbus area began in 2002, with American Eurocopter’s arrival at GTR airport.  Mississippi State University’s research and fabrication solutions were critical to American Eurocopter’s location and expansion, as well as to Stark Aerospace, which builds the RQ-5A Hunter UAS for the Army and the Marine Corps.

The Hunter RQ-5A has been a workhorse for U.S. forces in Macedonia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, providing critical real-time imagery to battlefield commanders. Stark is now demonstrating a larger unmanned system, the Heron, which will also be built in its expanded new facility at Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTR).  In addition, the company maintains and repairs its electro-optical payloads in Columbus.

Aurora Flight Sciences at GTR provides proof-of-concept studies on futuristic unmanned systems for major aerospace companies and government agencies.  In partnership with Boeing, Aurora is currently building the wing of the Orion, a high-altitude, long-loiter (HALL) hydrogen-powered unmanned system tentatively scheduled for first flight in 2010, with funding from the Army’s Space and Missile Command.

This year the United States Air Force will buy more unmanned systems than manned aircraft.  Pilot-training bases such as Columbus Air Force Base will send more graduates to UAS commands than to all fighter and bomber aircraft combined.  And Mississippi is well-positioned to become a leader in this rapidly expanding sector of the aerospace market.


Nick Ardillo is retired from the United States Air Force with the rank of colonel.  The former commander of Columbus Air Force Base, Ardillo is a partner in the business development and executive counsel firm of Ardillo, McCullough & Taggart, LLC.  He may be contacted at nick@results.ms.


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