Phantom Eye (or something like it) will someday be the bloated centerpiece of defending the United States (and its allies) from Russian or Chinese nuclear attack. Carrying what’s called a directed energy weapon, it will lurk at high altitude, ready to disable or fry an incoming missile. It is the dream of an airtight Star Wars strategic defense from which technological Cold Warriors never awoke.

Since Ronald Reagan unveiled his poorly (or awesomely!) labeled Star Wars strategic defense initiative in 1983, the United States has spent nearly $10 billion annually on missile defense technology, most of it relegated to obscure and highly classified science projects. “A UAV-borne laser would be capable of acquiring, tracking and eventually destroying an enemy missile at a much lower cost than the existing [ballistic missile defense system],” Vice Admiral J.D. Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency testified before Congress in March.

Boeing’s long-endurance Phantom Eye drone, which has a two 2.3-liter triple-turbocharged Ford pickup truck engines (no shit!) and burns liquid hydrogen contained in two giant spherical tanks, is just the battlestar to do the job. Phantom Eye’s first flight took place in June 2012. The five-ton drone has shown the ability to stay aloft for four days at 65,000 feet—Global Hawk altitude—watching over American skies. In September 2013, Boeing completed the fifth flight of Phantom Eye, the first to include an unspecified “payload,” that is a 400 pound classified device on board. It was a high powered laser, one of two being developed with Pentagon money by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

We imagine that the old Star Wars dream of airtight strategic defense died with Ronald Reagan, and we imagine that the American missile defense program is limited to protecting against a small-scale missile attack, one that might come from Iran or North Korea. But killer lasers and high powered microwave weapons are already deployed in small numbers, and in tandem with Phantom Eye, might soon be able to patrol the skies, launched in a crisis and able to remain on station for up to four days, a first line (or last line) or defense, and potentially upsetting to strategic stability.

Fun facts about Phantom Eye:

  • Phantom Eye’s second take-off was assisted by a special plane skate-board. Here’s a video from Boeing documenting the flight:

  • California’s drought has been good for one thing—the Phantom Eye has flown a number of times from Edwards Air Force Base’s “64.55 square miles of dry lakebeds.” Which are made into navigable runways by environmentally friendly oil. Ok.
  • Lots of fat shaming with this drone. Some adjectives used to describe it: pot-bellied, chubby, corpulent, enormous, fat. And here’s a quote from Popular Science that sounds like the beginning of a yo mama joke:

Its wingspan is too long to capture the whole thing from any vantage point inside the building.

[Images courtesy of Boeing.]