I wish the photo above came from inside Boeing's Phantom Works facility in St. Louis, which I toured yesterday morning. The image actually comes from inside the next building we toured, where the C-130 avionics modernization program (AMP) was briefed.
But you can't take cameras, cell phones, tape recorders, laptops and possibly even in hearing aids inside Phantom Works. It's a no-electronic-device kind of environment, like Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works compound in Palmdale, California.
Phantom Works has been busy lately. The X-45C that the US Air Force canceled in 2006, and the US Navy rejected for a carrier-based demonstration in 2007, turned up again last year as the internally-funded Phantom Ray demonstrator that could fly later this year. In the hangar opened to the press tour, major structures had piled up for the surprisingly large Phantom Eye high altitude long endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft, another internally-funded investment aimed at breaking the Boeing Condor's 58hr endurance record. I also saw my first glimpse of small drone named RM-1, which was literally fabricated by machines over a weekend after engineers loaded the plastic design into a computer on a Friday.
More long-term is an on-going effort to replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet with a next-generation (Boeing: Don't call it "6th-generation"!), carrier-based air dominance fighter. Phantom Works also is trying to figure out how the Air Force will replace the Predator/Reaper series -- the MQ-X requirement -- and whether the Navy really wants to buy a carrier-based, stealthy unmanned aircraft for strike and surveillance -- the UCLASS requirement. According to Phantom Works president Darryl Davis, the Pentagon is currently debating whether to combine the MQ-X and UCLASS into a single requirement.
All of this activity comes amidst looming budget cuts that promise to fall hardest on the Pentagon's research and development accounts. Davis acknowledges the dilemma, but says Boeing is not slowing down internal spending during the downturn -- so far.
"We're not throttling back on [developing new] capabilities," he says. "We want to make sure we're ready" when the defense spending cycle reverses direction again.