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PENTAGON SCRAPS DARKSTAR SPY PLANE; WILL PURSUE ALTERNATIVE JET.

Byline: Jim Skeen Daily News Staff Writer

The Defense Department has canceled the DarkStar spy plane program, saying taxpayers' dollars would be better spent on a cheaper unmanned aircraft, officials said Thursday.

DarkStar, built in Palmdale by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, is being cut in favor of Global Hawk, an unmanned spy plane being developed by Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego.

The Skunk Works employs 40 people on the program, and those employees will be reassigned to other work, said company spokesman Ron Lindeke.

``They (the Pentagon) did say there were technological breakthroughs on the program,'' Lindeke said. ``We intended to build on them in future programs.''

Skunk Works officials had envisioned building as many as 40 DarkStar aircraft, intended to be the ``eye in the sky'' for battlefield commanders, transmitting video and radar information to ground forces.

The stealthy, high-altitude aircraft was designed to be able to linger over a battlefield for more than eight hours and cover more than 14,000 square miles.

Wide, flat and tailless, with a 69-foot wingspan and a blunt fuselage only 15 feet long and 5 feet in diameter, the 8,600-pound aircraft is powered by an engine similar to the one used in the Cessna Citation business jet, capable of propelling DarkStar to altitudes above 45,000 feet.

The cancellation comes just after the DarkStar completed its first high-altitude flight, which included an in-flight update to the airplane's preplanned flight mission.

There is funding for flight tests for the three existing DarkStar aircraft through September. It was not clear whether the test program would continue.

A total of four DarkStar aircraft were built before the program was canceled. The first was destroyed in a 1996 flight test at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Air Force issued no explanation for its decision, but confirmed that the program had been canceled. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said DarkStar was considered redundant because of Global Hawk.

Although it is not stealthy like DarkStar, Global Hawk is designed to fly 3,000 miles, conduct reconnaissance for 24 hours and return to its base.

A congressional audit report estimated the price for each Global Hawk at $13.7 million compared with $14.8 million for DarkStar.

The first Global Hawk airplane is undergoing flight testing at Edwards Air Force Base.

U.S. Rep. Howard ``Buck'' McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, whose district includes the Skunk Works plant in Palmdale, learned of DarkStar's cancellation during a conversation Thursday with Jacques Gansler, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology.

Gansler informed McKeon there were plans for a successor program to DarkStar that the Skunk Works could vie for, said McKeon spokesman David Foy.

In the meantime, McKeon asked Gansler to re-examine the possibility of bringing the SR-71 Blackbird out of retirement to meet short-term reconnaissance needs. Foy said McKeon might introduce legislation for the deployment of the SR-71, a 2,000-mph spy plane that first flew in the 1960s.

``The cancellation of DarkStar illustrates the need for reviving the SR-71,'' Foy said. ``There is still a need for high-altitude surveillance.''

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PHOTO (Color) Each DarkStar surveillance plane cost an estimated $14.8 million.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 29, 1999
Words:528
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