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An aircraft that represents a missing technological link between Lockheed's abortive "Tier III-" RQ-3 Darkstar unmanned penetrating and long-loitering spy aircraft and the company's history making RQ-170 Sentinel is now coming to light. This previously unknown (to the public) flying-wing drone was built by Lockheed Skunk Works in 1999, shortly after the RQ-3 program vanished.
This new program, which aimed to prove rapid manufacturing technologies and penetrating aerial reconnaissance capabilities, as well as the aerodynamic validity of a relatively small, tailless, swept-wing drone, was dubbed the X-44A and first took to the skies in 2001.
The shadowy aircraft's designation is outright confusing as the X-44 "Manta" is largely known as a program that aimed to test a tailless manned aircraft design that emanated from the same period of time. This notional aircraft would use thrust vectoring for primary flight control, with the objective being to realize new speed, fuel efficiency, and maneuverability capabilities with such a design, as well as to demonstrate simpler and cheaper forms of aircraft structures production.
This USAF and NASA led program was supposedly cancelled around the turn of the millennium with some conceptual art being all that is left to show for it, which mainly includes drawings of what appears to be a tailless F-22 with an expanded trapezoidal wing.
It is unclear at this time how Lockheed's fat little flying-wing drone also ended up with the same X-44 designation, but there doesn't seem to be any direct relation between the two programs.
A patent dated 1996 and belonging to Lockheed has been identified as the real X-44A's design, or at least very close to it. The X-44's skin is supposedly made out of nano-carbon fiber and it's powered by a Williams F112 turbojet engine. The F112 powerplant is used in cruise missiles, such as the stealthy AGM-129, but it has also been used in other unmanned technology demonstrators, like the McDonnell Douglas's X-36 and Boeing's X-50.