Skunk Works Reveals Stealthy UAV Demonstrator

 - March 26, 2018, 12:07 PM
The X-44A on public display for the first time, 18 years after it was built. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

Lockheed Martin has unveiled a small UAV that was used by the Skunk Works to investigate the stability and control of a stealthy, arrow-shaped design. The X-44A first flew in 2001 and was followed by two larger UAV developments, one of which was revealed 12 years ago, and another which remains classified. The company is preparing to reveal details of its entry for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 unmanned carrier-borne aircraft, which have been closely held until now.

The X-44A made its public debut last weekend as a static display at the LA County Airshow, held at Fox Field, Lancaster, California. This is near the Skunk Works headquarters at Palmdale. The organization is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and was the show’s major sponsor. The X-44A was previously shown internally to company employees at Palmdale and Fort Worth.

The tail-less, white-painted vehicle has a wingsweep of approximately 30 degrees and a wingspan of some 30 feet, with trailing-edge alignment. The inlet and fixed exhaust for the engine—believed to be a Williams F112 turbojet—are above the short bulbous fuselage. The tricycle landing gear is fixed. Construction is all-carbon-fiber. A long air data probe has been removed from the front of the vehicle, but two adjacent, small circular sensor ports were a later addition and may have helped the company refine its MQ-25 proposal.

The X-44 designation is a puzzle, since it was also used to denote an experimental Multi-Axis No-Tail Aircraft (MANTA) for which Lockheed Martin received government funding. The company proposed a delta-wing development of the F-22 Raptor that used 3D thrust vectoring for control. The program had not progressed beyond the design stage before it was canceled in 2000.

At the Farnborough Airshow in 2006, the Skunk Works revealed a high-altitude unmanned aerial demonstrator with the company designation P175, named Polecat (slang for skunk), and already flying. This larger UAV featured some similar design elements to the X-44A, although with twin engine inlets and a much longer wing. The Polecat may have formed the basis for a proposal by Lockheed Martin for the Pentagon’s P-ISR (Penetrating Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) large, long-range, high-altitude low-observable, unmanned aircraft. But Northrop Grumman was chosen for that program, the existence of which is still classified, although AIN understands that it is now operational.

However, Lockheed Martin was successful in meeting another Pentagon requirement for a stealthy, unmanned reconnaissance UAS. This was the medium-altitude RQ-170 Sentinel, revealed by the U.S. Air Force in 2009 and operated over Afghanistan and Iran. The RQ-170 operating squadron has now moved from the secret airbase at Tonopah to Creech AFB, both in Nevada. However, no significant detail of this UAS has yet been made public.