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Navy moving ahead with its stealth attack drone program

Navy moving ahead with its stealth attack drone program

The Navy is moving ahead with its effort to field a stealthy, carrier-based attack drone. Yesterday, the sea service announced that it plans to give Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Atomics contracts to flesh out their competing designs for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program.

UCLASS is supposed to be semi-autonomous, meaning that it can take off, fly missions, and land on an aircraft carrier without a human operator at the controls the whole time. It will, however, have people monitoring the missions. (You can bet Human Rights Watch is going to keep a very close eye on this program.)

The Navy wants to use the drones to do everything from refueling other planes in midair (a critical task given the massive distances involved in the Pacific) to collecting intelligence on enemy forces and killing them. Unlike the current generation of combat UAVs, such as the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, ULCASS must be stealthy and jet-powered, giving it a chance to survive against enemy air defenses that would quickly take out a slow, propeller-powered Predator or Reaper.

(Keep in mind, that long range, stealthy jets, drones and missiles are part of the Pentagon’s plans to counter potential enemies who are investing in radars and missiles designed to keep U.S. ships and planes far from their borders under a strategy known as Anti-Access/Area Denial or A2AD.)

Northrop Grumman’s design will be based on its X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator. That jet is already flying from the Navy’s test facility at Patuxent River, Md., has taken off from a land-based catapult, and conducted taxi tests aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman last December. The UCAS program is a direct precursor to UCLASS, meant to prove that the Navy can operate a stealthy, fighter-size drone from its aircraft carriers. Needless to say Northrop plans on capitalizing on the work it’s done on the jet for the UCAS program to offer it up for UCLASS (got that?).

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is expected to offer up its Sea Ghost, a plane that will draw upon the Bethesda-based defense giant’s work building the Air Force’s super-secret RQ-170 stealth spy drone and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Next up, Predator- and Reaper-maker General Atomics is expected to offer a version of its jet-powered Predator C called the Avenger. That plane, like all the other designs, will be toughened against the strain of carrier takeoffs and landings as well as the corrosive, salty sea air.

Finally, Boeing is moving ahead with a brand-new design for UCLASS. A company executive told yours truly last year that Boeing isn’t going to pitch a "warmed over" version of its X-45, the plane that unsuccessfully competed against the X-47 for the UCAS contract.

This new batch of UCLASS development contracts is expected to run until 2015, according to the Navy.  The sea service originally wanted to field UCLASS operationally by 2018, but that ambitious date has slipped to 2020.