Paris Air Show

The Black and White of Stealthy UAVs

 - June 9, 2009, 6:22 AM

The X-47B is the only stealthy UAV under development that is currently acknowledged by the Pentagon–unless you count the recently revealed Predator-C, which General Atomics says has been built with the company’s own funds.

However, there is a hidden history of secret UAV programs in the U.S., and AIN believes one of these is now going operational. It could be a UAV with a reconnaissance mission produced, in partnership, by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. AIN also believes Boeing probably has received “black” funding for follow-on development of a UCAV based on the X-45 series.

In the “white” world, Boeing demonstrated significant progress with the two small X-45A air vehicles that it flew from 2002 to 2006. It had also built, but not yet flown, the first of three larger X-45C UCAV demonstrators, when funding for the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) ended mysteriously in early 2006. Northrop Grumman was also participating in the J-UCAS program, which provided the initial funding for the X-47B.

Officially, the U.S. Air Force elected to take its portion of the J-UCAS funding and apply it instead to the definition of a much larger Next-Generation Long-Range Strike (NGLRS) bomber. After early indications that the USAF wanted a supersonic solution, the NGLRS emerged as a manned, subsonic platform–smaller than a B-2 but larger than the X-45C. But funding for the NGLRS was recently halted “until we have a better understanding of the need, the requirement and the technology,” according to then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Meanwhile, another portion of the J-UCAS funding continued as the Navy-UCAS program. The Navy asked Boeing to propose a sea-going version of the X-45C, which was similar in size to Northrop Grumman’s X-47B, but the Navy soon confirmed it would be sticking with the latter’s proposal. Northrop Grumman probably had the edge because it had already spent company funds to build and fly a small UCAV (the X-47A Pegasus) to investigate carrier operations, albeit on dry land at Edwards Air Force Base.