The US Navy (USN) hopes to issue a draft request for proposal (RFP) for its nascent unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme before the end of 2012.
"The draft RFP is scheduled for release before the end of the year," the USN says.
USN budget documents indicate that the service hopes to have the new aircraft in limited operational service by 2020. According to USN officials, that means that a small squadron of perhaps a half-dozen UCLASS aircraft would be ready to train with a carrier air wing by that date, but the unit would not necessarily deploy with the ship.
Previously, the navy has indicated that the aircraft will be designed primarily for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role, but would have a significant strike capability. The aircraft would be designed to be rapidly upgraded over time with new sensors, weapons and even new stealth edges and coatings, according to USN officials.
While it will be a stealth aircraft, service officials caution that it will not necessarily be a panacea solution to defeating emerging anti-access/area-denial threats in the Western Pacific from the outset.
The service has also indicated previously that many of the government-owned technologies being developed as part of the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D) programme will be furnished to potential UCLASS competitors.
Northrop is expected to pitch a derivative of the X-47 for the UCLASS programme. Lockheed Martin is hoping to offer an aircraft called the Sea Ghost. General Atomics is expected to offer a derivative of its Predator-C Avenger. Boeing is likely to bid a new design that draws on lessons learned from its X-45C Phantom Ray.