Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned combat air system
Northrop Grumman’s X-47B unmanned aerial vehicle in May took off from the USS George H.W. Bush, circled back to the vessel and skimmed its wheels across the flight deck before taking flight again. It was the first time a drone performed a touch-and-go landing aboard a moving aircraft carrier and a major step toward making UAVs a regular part of carrier operations.
With the demonstrator program ending this summer, the Navy is set to rev up the design phase for an armed, carrier-based unpiloted aircraft capable of gathering intelligence and launching attacks. While Northrop’s experience with the X-47B may give the company an edge, other contractors have designs in the works and are ready to start the competition.
After years of delays, the Navy plans this summer to release a request for proposals for the preliminary design phase for its unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike aircraft, called UCLASS. The final RFP is set to be issued in early spring 2014.
Naval Air Systems Command in its presolicitation said four defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, Boeing and Northrop Grumman — “have credible, existing, comprehensive UCLASS design solutions” that will be ready for Navy evaluation in the third quarter of fiscal year 2014. The service plans to issue four contracts of an unspecified value to those companies for the design phase.
Officials from those companies said they are all gearing up for battle.
The eight-to-10 month preliminary design phase will not eliminate any competitors but is intended for the Navy to “evaluate the technical maturity and progress of the designs,” said Bob Ruszkowski, Lockheed Martin’s director of UCLASS program development.
Draft specifications for UCLASS indicate that the final aircraft will have a “light strike capability,” but will primarily be used to autonomously conduct intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance operations, Ruszkowski said.
“That provides some operational flexibility … that right now you don’t necessarily have with land-based UAVs, where you might have to ask a host nation for permission to operate there,” he said.
Final requirements are still in the works, but preliminary specifications state that UCLASS should be able to carry weapons currently available to aircraft that fly from carriers, such as the 500-pound joint direct attack munition, Ruszkowski said.
It will be required to perform persistent coverage of a target at a distance of less than 1,000 nautical miles from the carrier, though the range of its strike capability will be farther than that, he added.
Ruszkowski said part of the challenge will be creating a drone that can integrate seamlessly with an aircraft carrier’s normal deck cycle — the schedule whereby aircraft are launched and are recovered on the ship’s flight deck. “That could be 12 hours or more for one aircraft away from the carrier,” he said.
The Navy also has set aerial refueling requirements for the aircraft. UCLASS must be refuelable while in flight, and the Navy would also like it to be able to deliver fuel to fighter jets, Ruszkowski said.
Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works in April debuted a tailless flying wing UCLASS design, which will reuse hardware and software from the company’s F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial system.
“We have flown aircraft very similar to our flying wing design, including the Polecat demonstrator that we flew a few years ago ... which was a high altitude flying wing unmanned aircraft. We have a lot of experience with aircraft of this type,” Ruszkowski said.
Citing the ongoing nature of the competition, officials from General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and Boeing declined to give interviews regarding their offerings.
Lockheed Martin’s decision to reuse hardware from the Sentinel and Joint Strike Fighter is a smart one because affordability will be a key concern of the Navy going forward, said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group.
Lockheed is in the process of evaluating subcontractors and suppliers to become part of its UCLASS team, including for the engine and sensor systems. The company is considering using its electro-optical targeting system, or EOTS, a forward-looking infrared sensor used on the F-35, Ruszkowski said.
UCLASS will operate autonomously most of the time, but a pilot will control the aircraft during critical mission segments. Ultimately, Lockheed wants its design to allow one operator to fly as many as four aircraft at the same time, he said. “There’s going to be inherent systems aboard the aircraft and in the loop that will ensure safe separation” between the drones.
Lockheed Martin is taking an open architecture approach with the design so that the Navy can equip the drone with newer, more advanced hardware as needed.
Open architecture “has to be in the communications infrastructure within the aircraft, it has to be within the sensor backbone that’s within the aircraft and the central processing system,” Ruszkowski said. “So we’ll be able to rapidly integrate, for example, a new sensor.”
Analysts believe Northrop Grumman may already be ahead of the curve because of its work on the unmanned combat air system aircraft carrier demonstrator program, or UCAS-D.
The program was developed by the Navy to learn how to integrate an unmanned system on an aircraft carrier and prove that a drone could take off and land while the ship is in motion.
Northrop Grumman will likely use the X-47B aircraft flown for UCAS demonstrations as the basis for its final UCLASS design, Finnegan said.
The UCAS program hit several major milestones in May other than the touch-and-go landing. Northrop Grumman and the Navy accomplished the X-47B’s first catapult launch earlier that month.
The company also demonstrated an arrested landing — which is performed when the aircraft catches its hook on a heavy cable extended across the landing area, bringing it to a complete stop — onshore at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.
Carrier-based arrested landings this summer will be the final demonstrations, said Carl Johnson, Northrop Grumman’s program manager for UCAS-D. The company is conducting additional shore-based arrestments and gathering data to prepare for the final leg of the program.
“Northrop is really the company to beat in part because of the work that it has been doing on this program,” said Finnegan. “Also, if you think more broadly, Northrop Grumman has a very strong position in the Navy” because of its experience building maritime equipment such as the Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter that will be used by naval special operations forces.
Right now, Northrop Grumman has the advantage of being the only company that has landed a drone on a moving aircraft carrier, Finnegan said. Developing the UCAS has also given it experience working on preventing electromagnetic interference and corrosion resulting from the harsh maritime environment.
“This unmanned system is different from all of the systems that have been designed” before it, Johnson told National Defense. “Every other system knows where it’s taking off and landing,” but the X-47B has to be able to autonomously return to an aircraft carrier that has sailed away from its starting position.
The Navy’s specifications for UCLASS are different than what the company was required to achieve for the UCAS program, but “we believe that we have a very good understanding of the problems and solutions” going forward into the UCLASS program, Johnson said. He declined to elaborate.
Ruszkowski from Lockheed Martin downplayed the impact UCAS-D will have on the competition.
“The fact that Northrop does have this experience with the X-47 is good, but I don’t think it gives them an unfair advantage,” he said. But “if the roles were reversed, I would say certainly it’s an advantage to have the experience.”
In order to level the playing field, Northrop’s competitors will have access to some of the data from UCAS-D, Ruszkowski added, although the extent of that access is undetermined.
Like Lockheed Martin, General Atomics is reusing hardware and software from its other systems in order to cut down cost. The company will offer the Sea Avenger, a carrier-based aircraft derived from the Predator C Avenger.
General Atomics designed the Predator C while keeping in mind the Navy’s requirement for a carrier-based UAV, according to material released by the company. It incorporated features into the original design that would help the drone integrate onto an aircraft carrier, such as folding wings and an internal weapons bay.
The company conducted a wind tunnel test on a model of the Sea Avenger in 2011.
Of the competitors, Boeing has been the most reticent to release specific information about its proposal.
“Boeing will give the Navy a UCLASS platform that can provide a persistent … [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and strike capability supporting 24/7 carrier operational coverage,” said Didi VanNierop, spokeswoman for Boeing Phantom Works.
Finnegan and other analysts believe the company will propose a design based on the Phantom Ray. That aircraft originated from Boeing’s X-45C prototype, a tailless flying wing developed for the UCAS-D competition but ultimately axed in favor of Northrop’s X-47B.
Boeing used internal funding to carry on development of the Phantom Ray, which made its first flight in April 2011 at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Three years have passed since the Navy first requested information for UCLASS, but disagreements among Navy leadership surrounding the requirements delayed the program’s start. At issue was whether UCLASS should harness the latest, most advanced technology or the most affordable.
“As I understand it, there’s still a difference within the Navy over the requirements for the UCLASS,” Finnegan said. “To my understanding, it hasn’t been ironed out yet.”
The three-year delay gave contractors time to develop technology, but having draft specifications in hand only a few months before the start of the design phase doesn’t give companies a lot of time to adjust their concepts, Ruszkowski said.
“It puts us in a little bit of a difficult situation, but we’re managing,” he said. “It would have been better to have seen draft specifications a year ago instead of two months ago.”