U.S. Navy Awards Study Contracts For Unmanned Carrier-borne Stealth

 - July 11, 2011, 6:00 AM
General Atomics is developing a marinized version of its Predator C jet-powered UAV, named Sea Avenger, for the U.S. Navy’s UCLASS requirement. (Photo: General Atomics)

Four American companies will demonstrate concepts for an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft to the U.S. Navy. Study contracts worth about $500,000 each were awarded late June to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI, which offers the Sea Avenger version of the jet-powered Predator C); Lockheed Martin (a version of the still-secret RQ-170 Sentinel); Northrop Grumman (already flying the X-47B under a previous Navy contract) and Boeing (which will adapt the recently flown Phantom Ray). The Navy is looking for a carrier-based persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capability by 2018.

In a recent briefing to journalists, Darryl Davis, Boeing Phantom Works president, described UCLASS as “a program that’s emerging rapidly. [It is] probably the next program of record that goes to a down-select in the next 12 months or so.”

Davis said Boeing is about to conduct a handling demonstration of the Phantom Ray on a simulated carrier deck, using human gestures and radio frequency devices to control the aircraft. The Phantom Ray completed its first flight April 27 at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

GA-ASI first described the Sea Avenger in May 2010, and completed a wind-tunnel test last February. The test validated low-speed characteristics of a new folding wing, resulting in higher endurance and lower approach speeds, GA-ASI said. The design features a structure that is reinforced for carrier operations, and has a retractable electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor, air-refueling probe and internal weapons bay. 

Meanwhile, GA-ASI told AIN that it is building three more Predator C Avengers. The prototype first flew in April 2009. This aircraft completed weapons testing in April at Naval Air Station China Lake, Calif. The company declined to specify which weapons were tested, but they could include Hellfire missiles and GBU-38 joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs). The UAV is powered by a Pratt & Whitney PW545B turbofan. GA-ASI said the second Predator C is expected to fly before year-end. The company has begun construction of the third aircraft and has ordered long-lead items for a fourth. The Predator C has been developed on company funding, according to GA-ASI, and no customer has yet been announced.