posted on Jan, 22 2008 @ 06:05 PM
I n a clandestine program run by Lockheed Martin's legendary Skunk Works, the U.S. Air Force is developing an armed, stealthy, unmanned aircraft
small enough to be carried close to its target under the wing of a manned fighter before being launched.
The unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) would attack its targets, probably some element of an air defense complex such as the radar, control van or
missile launcher, with one or two small bombs and then return to its base. Two or three UAVs could be directed by a single, stealthy, manned aircraft
whose pilot would provide authority for weapons release at the end of the UCAV's largely autonomous flight.
IT IS ONE OF THE MANY platforms that the Air Force must focus on to meet the Pentagon's demands for casualty-free conflicts. Researchers are being
asked to develop very accurate, miniaturized weapons that can be carried internally in a new generation of unmanned aircraft. Also parts of the effort
are classified nonlethal weapons such as high-powered microwaves to scramble computer memories and carbon-fiber/wires to shut down commercial
electrical grids. While equally classified, programs combining unmanned aircraft and next-generation weapons are also being developed in Britain.
The black UCAV program will be in a hidden competition with an unclassified UCAV demonstration program being run by Boeing's Phantom Works, the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and the Air Force. The Boeing aircraft is specifically designed for suppression of air defenses and,
perhaps later, strike missions. The goal is to augment manned aircraft as part of the post-2010 force structure. Elements of the program will be
plucked from technology developed for the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter programs.
The Air Force and the Navy had developed a similar concept a decade ago in Northrop-Grumman's BQM-145A which was carried by an F-16 or F/A-18. While
they finally chose not to buy the high-speed, unmanned aircraft, other countries are putting weapons on the design. Moreover, a number of the
medium-range UAVs were eventually completed and used for classified testing, including development of a chemical-biological-detection payload for the
Advocates of the black UCAV say it also will be a demonstrator for advanced stealth technologies that will make the aircraft less vulnerable to
long-range infrared seekers and low-frequency radars, which are the major threat to today's stealth aircraft. The data will then be transferred to
the B-X bomber program that is to produce a follow-on to the B-2.
THE UCAV WOULD RELY on computers more than sensors and would be distinct from cruise missiles in that there would be a "very short time between the
lethal decision [to attack] and the lethal act [striking the target]" which would be critical in striking fast-moving targets such as mobile
antiaircraft missiles and ballistic missile launchers," a veteran Air Force planner said. Acquisition officials estimate that if the average UCAV
lasts for 8-9 missions it will pay for itself.
For the adjunct reconnaissance and bomb damage assessment roles, the Skunk Works also is developing--using its own research funding--a second unarmed,
unmanned aircraft (UAV). That program could fulfill the prediction made by Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters in early 1999 that "there are a few
things in the black world" to fill the niche left by cancellation of Lockheed Martin/Boeing's stealthy DarkStar reconnaissance UAV. Peters was
trying to explain why an Air Force requirement for stealthy reconnaissance remained unfulfilled.
The black UCAV program is already controversial. Industry officials say Northrop Grumman had gotten the nod to build the highly stealthy system using
its residual B-2 design talent. But senior Air Force civilian acquisition officials decided late in the process to award the UCAV contract to Lockheed
Martin, several officials said. Because of the classified nature of the program, Northrop Grumman could make no public protest.
The decision to hand the contract to Lockheed Martin, at least in part, is seen as an effort to preserve the aviation industrial base. With Boeing's
involvement in the unclassified UCAV demonstration program and Boeing and Northrop Grumman working on a Navy UCAV, Lockheed Martin was left without a
program in an area that senior Pentagon officials view as a critical growth area and an operational necessity by 2010. Lockheed Martin officials
conceded that they were concerned about being left out.
Lockheed Martin was making its own plans to stay involved in unmanned programs. The Skunk Works is already developing a classified reconnaissance UAV.
It is being designed as a high-speed, penetrator aircraft that could fly over its target at low level and survive modern air defenses. It is seen as a
replacement for Teledyne Ryan's (Northrop Grumman) now-canceled, joint-service Medium-Range UAV. The program was killed when the Atars reconnaissance
payload ran into development problems. Skunk Works officials hope to interest the Army in their UAV program.
The UCAVs and UAVs have their origins in the mid-1980s military buildup by the Reagan Administration. Tracing the lineage of these aircraft reveals
the evolution of Pentagon thinking about the size, cost and missions of these aircraft.
THE CURRENT PROGRAMS HAD their start in a competition between Lockheed and Boeing for the National Reconnaissance Office's advanced airborne
reconnaissance system (AARS). With intercontinental range and a 200-ft. wingspan that approached the size of a B-2 bomber, the UAVs would have cost an
estimated $500 million each. Lockheed's offering in the competition with Boeing was code-named "Quartz." Quartz won, and Lockheed's Skunk Works
and Boeing then competed for work share with the former winning sensors and fuselage and the latter taking on wings and flight controls.
Quartz was never completed, but a fuselage and one wing were built for testing, Air Force officials said. It was designed with alternative payload
pods. One was a pilot's capsule so the aircraft could be flown by a crew, probably for long-range ferry flights and testing. The other was a
reconnaissance pod for more dangerous unmanned reconnaissance missions.
But as the Cold War wound down and defense budgets started to shrink, defense planners continually demanded redesign of the program until the price of
the AARS had been reduced to $200 million per copy. To reduce costs, stealth, sensor and materials technology had been inserted from General
Dynamics/McDonnell-Douglas' A-12 Navy strike aircraft program which was canceled in January 1991.
But even with a 60% reduction in cost, the program was considered too rich for a post-Cold War world. According to congressional figures, about $1
billion had been spent on the project by late 1992 when it, along with most of the military's tactical reconnaissance programs, was finally canceled.
A scaled-down, $150-million-a-copy version of Quartz, now named the Tier 3 UAV, was designed to loiter over a battlefield for days. But the services
still didn't think they could afford the aircraft.
Finally, the program was divided into two parts. Projected aircraft price goals were set at $10 million each and development was begun in the
unclassified world as Darpa's big-payload Tier 2+ and stealthy Tier 3- UAV programs.
Later the Tier 2+ program evolved into Northrop Grumman's long-range, high-altitude Global Hawk UAV, which is nearing operational service with the
Air Force. Lockheed Martin/Boeing's Tier 3- became the DarkStar UAV, which was canceled by the Air Force in early 1999 as being operationally