Air Force unmanned aircraft developer Mike Leahy tapped to replace Fred Kennedy at DARPA

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Leahy is best known in defense technology circles as the “father of the X-45."

WASHINGTON — Former Air Force program manager and Northrop Grumman executive Mike Leahy will replace Fred Kennedy as head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactical Technology Office, the agency’s director said.

Mike Leahy
Mike Leahy

Leahy will be joining the agency in late May, DARPA Director Steven Walker told SpaceNews on Wednesday following a breakfast meeting with reporters.

Kennedy was director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office for two years and recently left the agency to become the first director the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency.

Leahy is best known in defense technology circles as the “father of the X-45.” He was program manager of the joint Air Force/DARPA X-45A unmanned combat air vehicle in the late 1990s. At the time, the Air Force was resisting the idea that fighter pilots could be replaced with autonomous drones. Leahy was featured in Wired Magazine as a pioneer of unmanned combat aviation who defied the establishment.

Leahy served in the Air Force for 27 years and retired as a colonel. He later held a number of senior positions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and worked on unmanned combat aircraft programs like the Air Force’s Global Hawk, the Navy’s Triton and NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance drone.

As head of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, Leahy will oversee the Blackjack program, a joint effort with the Air Force to develop a prototype constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit and demonstrate potential military applications.

Kennedy conceived Blackjack as way to develop more affordable constellations with small satellite buses that would be more resilient and faster to replenish than constellations of large, expensive satellites in geostationary Earth orbit.

With Kennedy now at the helm of the Space Development Agency, there has been speculation about the future of Blackjack, as one of the SDA’s goals is to build a proliferated LEO constellation. Walker said Blackjack will remain a joint DARPA/Air Force program.“Fred Kennedy would like very much to build on Blackjack,” Walker said. “My understanding of the SDA vision is that it will develop an architecture for a proliferated LEO constellation,” he said. “SDA would take what Blackjack does and multiply it, do a bigger architecture for operational use.”