The U.S. Navy’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration (UCAS-D) aircraft prepares to land at Edwards
Air Force Base, Calif., following the second of two test flights in March. The Northrop Grumman-built UCAS-D will tackle
some of the tough technical challenges for an unmanned carrier-based aircraft, and lessons learned from testing will be
applied to the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program.
While the program has generally enjoyed support
from Congress, it did come under some scrutiny in the
House Armed Services Committee’s mark-up of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill in May. Rep. Todd
Akin, R-Mo., who represents the district where F/A-
18E/F Super Hornets are built, included language that
limits the Navy’s ability to spend research and development dollars until the Pentagon submits a report to
Congress that justifies the program’s existence.
Several of the largest defense contractors are putting
a lot of investment dollars in drones that could fill the
UCLASS role, clearly believing the money will be there
when all is said and done. Boeing has been developing
the Phantom Ray, which is based on its X- 45 platform.
The Phantom Ray flew for the first time in April.
Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the
Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va., aerospace and defense consulting
group, said the 2018 fielding goal is “pretty ambitious.” Just
how ambitious will depend on the results of the upcoming
analysis of alternatives, which will determine “exactly what
the Navy chooses, how much of a leap there is and how
much is purely based on existing work,” he added.
“At this point it’s ambitious, but it will really depend
on the [analysis],” he said.
Finnegan agreed that the biggest challenge for the
program would be integrating it with carrier operations.
“That’s really the big one right there and, frankly,
that’s why contractors see it as extremely important to
show they have specific Navy expertise,” he said. “It’s
a safety issue, also. A carrier has a lot of electromagnet-
ic interference. It’s very different from operating from a
Finnegan noted that although the upcoming com-
petition is technically wide open, Northrop has an
advantage as the manufacturer of the UCAS-D.
Lockheed Martin may have a slight advantage as well,
since it is a contributor to the UCAS-D effort.