Pentagon wants nuclear powered drones

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and defense contractor Northrop Grumman have formulated plans for a new generation of nuclear-powered drones.

The next-gen aircraft would reportedly be capable of flying over remote regions for months – instead of days – without refueling.

“It’s pretty terrifying prospect. Drones are much less safe than other aircraft and tend to crash a lot, Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK told The Guardian. 

“[Yet], there is a major push by this industry to increase the use of drones and both the public and government are struggling to keep up with the implications.”

According to the Guardian, the new drones would address a number of “ultra-persistence” shortcomings that limit current current aircraft including

insufficient “hang time” over a potential target; lack of power for running sophisticated surveillance and weapons systems; and lack of communications capacity.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Pentagon has (supposedly) halted its nuclear power drone initiative over concerns that the propulsion system could fall into the hands of terrorists and provide material for a dirty bomb. 

Nevertheless, Sandia recently confirmed that the project had been completed, at least on paper.

“[We are] often asked to look at a wide range of solutions to the toughest technical challenges. The research on this topic was highly theoretical and very conceptual,” the lab said in an official statement. “The work only resulted in a preliminary feasibility study and no hardware was ever built or tested. The project has ended.”

Although it remains unclear if the Pentagon conducted actual test flights using nuclear-powered drones, the independent Federation of American Scientists (FAS) believes computer-based projections were likely  used to test various prototypes and concepts.

“Based on requirements and direction provided by Northrop Grumman, Sandia performed focused studies to translate stated needs into conceptual designs and processes that could be transferred easily from Sandia to industry design and production personnel,” FAS concluded.

As such, Coles said he remains wary of what the future might bring. 

“As they become low-cost, low-risk alternatives to conventional warfare, the threshold for their use will inevitably drop. The consequences are not being thought through,” he warned.

It should be noted that Northrop Grumman first patented a drone equipped with a helium-cooled nuclear reactor way back 1986, while early military designs for nuclear-powered aircraft go back as far as the 1950s.