Paris Air Show

UCAV Program Review

 - December 12, 2006, 1:27 PM

Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS): As well as its “black world” programs such as the Lockheed Martin “son of DarkStar” that was reportedly used in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role over Iraq, the U.S. is developing a UCAV in a publicly visible program to satisfy the needs of the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Originally two separate efforts, the now-combined J-UCAS reflects its origins as the technology demonstrator vehicles currently flying were developed for the respective services.

Boeing’s X-45A is a subscale vehicle originally intended to demonstrate technologies for the USAF’s short-range UCAV program. Two were built–the first flying on May 22, 2002–and have demonstrated weapons tests and formation flying. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman’s X-47A Pegasus was initially developed to support the Navy’s larger and longer-ranged UCAV-N program, and since its first flight on Feb. 23, 2003, has been principally aimed at demonstrating its potential carrier suitability.

Both companies are now building much larger vehicles that are, in effect, competing prototypes for the J-UCAS vehicle. Boeing’s X-45C is a flying-wing design, while the Northrop Grumman X-47B is expected to have a lifting body with wing panels attached. Both are very stealthy in appearance with intakes mounted above the fuselage. First flights of both are scheduled for early 2007.

Neuron: In Europe the main program is the Dassault-led Neuron, which also involves varying degrees of participation from Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. A number of technology demonstrators have flown or are under development to aid the final Neuron design. Dassault flew the AVE D (“Petit Duc D”) demonstrator on July 18, 2000, and followed up with the AVE C on Nov. 7, 2002, the latter aimed at demonstrating control laws. The larger Moyen Duc is demonstrating more operational capabilities.

Sweden’s Saab has built and flown the small SHARC demonstrator, and has built a larger and more representative UCAV demonstrator known as the Filur. The aerodynamic configuration was tested in 2004 using a small-scale model known as “Baby Filur.” Italy’s Alenia is testing unmanned systems with its Sky-X demonstrator.

Experience from these systems is being fed into the Neuron design, which is due to fly in 2009-10. For some years artists’ showed a craft similar to the X-47B, with distinct wings attached to a stealthy center body. In April 2005, however, new concepts showed that the Neuron team had elected to use a flying-wing shape, akin to Boeing’s X-45C.

EADS is participating in Neuron through its CASA branch, but EADS-Deutschland is also believed to be independently working on a UCAV demonstrator, reportedly called Barrakuda.