US Navy and DARPA are to provide money in the 2004 budget for a more robust flight test of the X-46 and X-47B

The US Navy and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are hoping to revitalise the moribund naval unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV-N) demonstration programme with an injection of money in the 2004 budget for a more robust flight test of both the Boeing X-46 and competing Northrop Grumman X-47B.

UCAV-N has been at a virtual standstill since March last year because of an ongoing debate about proceeding with the next planned Phase 2B of the competitive demonstration. DARPA and the USN had been due to decide between the X-46 and X-47B for a land-based aircraft carrier compatibility demonstration, but critics argue this may further reduce an already narrow field of competitors for a planned follow-on UCAV-N development and acquisition programme.

Northrop Grumman, as a result, has slowed work on a company-funded X-47A Pegasus demonstrator, the first flight of which has slipped from 2002 to early this year. "It might have been different if there had been a competition in the autumn," says Paul Meyer, Northrop Grumman vice-president business and strategy development.

Industry and Department of Defense officials say supplemental funding is being sought in the 2004 allocation for the $100 million originally budgeted for Phase 2B. The addition of a second vehicle could also open the door to a more robust demonstration than simply proving the aerodynamic compatibility of a tailless, low observable design with launch and recovery from an aircraft carrier.

"There is the potential to do more with one or both vehicles, including sensor and weapon demonstrations," says a source. Depending on the final amount of money allocated, the flight demonstration could be broadened to include sea trials aboard a carrier. Flight testing is targeted to begin in 2005 and run to early 2006.

The future shape and scope of a UCAV-N development effort is the subject of a study to create a joint programme office with the US Air Force. It is unclear whether the eventual aim is to pursue joint UCAV development along the lines of the Joint Strike Fighter as some have suggested, or ensure that the different USN and USAF vehicles share common systems and architecture.

The USAF/DARPA-funded UCAV demonstration has progressed considerably further than UCAV-N, with a second Boeing X-45A demonstrator vehicle having flown recently. The air force has also mapped out a seamless transition from demonstration to the acquisition of an A-45 initial operational system by 2008.


Source: Flight International