A tailless unmanned combat aircraft is the leading candidate to replace Boeing F/A-18 strike fighters on US Navy carrier decks from around 2025. Range, endurance, stealth and weapons capacity are "unique attributes" of the tailless UCAS for the emerging F/A-XX requirement, says a senior official.
Speaking at an IDGA unmanned air systems conference in Washington, DC, Capt Marty Deppe, navy unmanned combat air system programme manager, said that a UCAS's long unrefuelled range and ultra-long refuelled endurance would enable aircraft carriers to stand off beyond the range of anti-ship ballistic missiles, according to navy analyses, while its low observability would enable the vehicle to penetrate and persist in defended airspace to perform surveillance (ISR) and strike missions.
According to a new naval aviation vision document signed by US Navy and Marine Corps leadership in January, "UCAS will be the F/A-XX replacement aircraft," said Deppe. Under the vision, F/A-XX is to become operational around 2025, replacing the F/A-18 and operating from carrier decks alongside the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.
Deppe said UCAS could be "a sixth-generation fighter and first-generation persistent ISR/strike platform".
Under the navy's UCAS demonstrator programme, Northrop Grumman plans to conduct the first carrier operations with an autonomous aircraft in late 2011, including catapult take-offs, arrested landings and deck handling of its tailless flying-wing X-47B.
Additional technologies will have to be matured before a UCAS can be developed as the F/A-XX, said Deppe. These include automated aerial refuelling, carrier-suitable low observability, integrated propulsion and advanced sensors, networks and weapons. Some of these would be applicable to a manned F/A-XX.
Navy planning for F/A-XX calls for an analysis of alternatives leading to a decision on launching the programme in fiscal year 2012, Deppe said. This would be followed by a risk reduction effort and a second AOA, leading to a decision on beginning development of a manned or unmanned aircraft in FY15.