Northrop Grumman’s Naval Combat Drones Get Lifeline (UPDATED)

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Navy has decided to hold off sending its X-47B combat drones to an aviation museum. For now, the Northrop Grumman aircraft will be kept in flying condition pending high-level decisions on how to move forward.

“The Navy is examining a range of potential follow-on activities involving the X-47B air vehicles,” Navy Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager for unmanned carrier aviation, told National Defense in a statement.

Duarte in April broke the news that the Navy would donate to a museum or mothball the carrier drones — dubbed Salty Dog 501 and Salty Dog 502 — even after a series of successful at-sea tests.

The thinking at the time was that there was no further use for the aircraft although the Navy would continue to study the test data with an eye toward a future new drone program.

Lawmakers swiftly reacted to that decision and demanded that the Navy change course. In its version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, the Senate Armed Services Committee directed the Navy to continue testing the X-47B. The committee chided the Navy for abandoning the program at a time when other nations are rushing to develop advanced combat drones and antiship missiles that would make long-range aircraft like the X-47B more valuable in a future war.

The Naval Air Systems Command on June 18 extended Northrop Grumman’s unmanned combat air systems demonstration contract for five months. Duarte said the “performance extension” provides funding for Northrop Grumman to maintain the X-47B aircraft in "flyable standby status" at Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland.

The technical achievements of the X-47B over the past year — catapult launches and arrested landings on an aircraft carrier deck, a flight alongside manned aircraft and mid-air refueling — have been overshadowed by political battles over the Navy’s plan to end the program and, instead, fund a new combat drone that would ostensibly be less sophisticated, but also much cheaper, than the X-47B.

The Navy poured $1.5 billion into the unmanned combat aircraft demonstration over the past eight years, according to Duarte.

The Naval Air Systems Command was ready a year ago to launch an open competition for a new drone, called the unmanned carrier launched strike and surveillance, or UCLASS. Multiple industry designs were expected, and officials insisted the Navy would not buy a modified version of the X-47.

But plans to start work on the UCLASS have stalled. The program came under fire on Capitol Hill because it was pursuing primarily a spy drone that would be more affordable but less technologically advanced than the X-47.

“We’ll need a UCLASS with deep strike penetration capability,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., one of the program’s staunchest critics. Forbes and several analysts questioned the Navy’s requirement for 14-hour endurance, which meant the aircraft would not be able to carry a heavy load of weapons. He agreed with the Navy that an advanced combat airplane would be expensive, but nevertheless should be a priority. “Everything we do today is expensive,” Forbes said. “On UCLASS, we have to go back to fundamentals, set priorities.”

Per congressional guidance, the Pentagon is reviewing the Navy’s specifications for UCLASS as part of a broad “strategic portfolio review” led by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

“UCLASS, like many other programs, is undergoing a review as part of budget deliberations,” Duarte said. A request for proposals remains on hold pending the outcome of the Pentagon review.

A Northrop Grumman spokesman said he could not comment specifically on the future of X-47B and deferred questions to the Navy. Industry executives in recent months have grumbled that the indecisiveness in programs like UCLASS is costing companies millions of dollars they are paying to keep their design teams in place. Northrop Grumman, The Boeing Co., General Atomics

Aeronautical Systems and Lockheed Martin received $15 million contracts to begin UCLASS designs but may have to go back to the drawing board after the current dust settles.

Forbes said he doubts the Navy even knows what it wants. “When you ask them what the platform looks like, what they need the UCLASS to look like, you get crickets,” he said. “They don’t know.

We want to make sure we build it for the right environment. I’m not convinced that’s the direction the Navy has been heading.”

Forbes also is growing impatient with the Navy’s plan for X-47B. “It’s one of the most frustrating things. We start doing these tests, then we say we’re done and we put it in a museum. We need to at least continue to experiment.” He supports the Senate language to continue the experimentation.

“I think there is a world of opportunities in terms of testing,” said Forbes. “That helps the secretary understand what tomorrow looks like. We can do strike and refueling. Other capabilities need to be tested.”

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this post said the Navy spent $2 billion on the unmanned combat air demonstration over five years.

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Shipbuilding, Aircraft Carriers

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