Looks like the US Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program is starting to take-off. The USN has already completed its analysis of alternatives for the program. Right now, the service's three-stars are hashing out the future aircraft's key performance parameters.
This is a Lockheed Martin rendering of the Sea Ghost--looks a lot like the RQ-170 or Polecat to me.
Once the USN sets those requirements, they have to be blessed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. If that all works out as planned, the USN will issue technology maturation contracts to a number of contractors, a senior Navy official says. After that, the USN will pick a single design to develop into an operational aircraft around 2016. The service still wants to have about a half-dozen jets available to train on a carrier deck by 2020, but the UCLASS squadron wouldn't necessarily deploy with that carrier air wing at that time. That would probably happen later.
The UCLASS would not have everything the Navy wants right off the bat, the senior Navy official says. But it will grow over time as technology and money becomes available. Particularly, while the UCLASS will start off with some degree of stealth, it will continue to add more signature reduction measures over time--as the budget allows. It will also add new capabilities in terms of sensors, weapons and payload over time--if there is money to pay for it. Cost could almost be considered a key performance parameter unto itself.
The US Air Force is planning on leveraging the UCLASS's initial capabilities document, mostly because it doesn't have the money for a new program right now. The service has already embedded a procurement officer with the Navy's UCLASS effort.
For many of the largest defense contractors like Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed and General Atomics, the UCLASS represents one of a handful of opportunities to get onboard a new start developmental effort--the other being a US Air Force Long Range Strike-Bomber. Boeing's military aircraft president Chris Chadwick said weeks ago that he is confident his company has a competitive UCLASS design. General Atomics has its Sea Avenger. Meanwhile Northrop Grumman is the incumbent with its X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator. Though Lockheed does have a role the X-47B program, the company is planning on offering its own design for UCLASS.
Today Lockheed unveiled its Sea Ghost concept. At least to my eye, it bears a striking resemblance to Lockheed's previous RQ-170 and Polecat stealth unmanned aircraft designs. Kudos to Flight reporter Zach Rosenberg for spotting this earlier today...
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