After the cancellation of J-UCAS in 2006, it was widely reported that the money from that program, on the Air Force side, was going to a classified
program. About that time the RQ-170 was ordered, with 20 aircraft total.
Forward two years, to 2008, and we see the awarding of a large contract to cover the demonstrator for the Next Generation Bomber (NGB). Now it
appears that instead of the NGB demonstrator, that money was for a Black ISR platform.
It appears that the RQ-170 was never intended as a large scale ISR platform, but instead as a stopgap until the new aircraft was flying. It's
speculated that the aircraft has a wingspan similar to a Global Hawk, but appears more as an X-47, with more slender wings, an active electronic
warfare system, and possibly bays for SDB and MALD-J systems. It also appears to be a joint USAF/CIA operation, as was the RQ-170.
The other interesting development comes from an industry executive. He has said that Lockheed Martin is building a Next Generation Bomber (NOT the
LRS-B program). It apparently is being built using "repackaging of equipment from earlier programs", so may only be a demonstrator.
However, both NG, and Boeing have been talking about the LRS-B program, and seem very interested in developing systems for it, where Lockheed hasn't
even shown interest in it.
In 2010, the Air Force showed a slide during a presentation, that showed "penetrating ISR" and "penetrating, stand-in AEA" as enablers for the
entire LRS program. The slide showed proposed systems, and others. Both of those systems were under others, implying that there was some kind of
program that either had both, or that both are under development in the black world.
Along with ISR requirements and the UCAV project, a third influence on what is happening today was the Air Force Research Laboratory's Sensor
Craft program, started in the late 1990s. Sensor Craft took on the main challenge of Quartz—combining efficiency with stealth. Its main thrusts were
the maintenance of natural laminar flow control on swept wings, structurally integrated sensors and unusual configurations, including joined wings. At
Northrop Grumman, Sensor Craft work blended with its in-house studies of “cranked kite” configurations that were stealthy and offered
“sailplane-like” efficiency, in one engineer's words. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, unveiled its Polecat demonstrator in the summer of 2006, aimed
at similar goals.
Also in 2006, the Quadrennial Defense Review terminated J-UCAS. It was openly reported at the time that while the Navy continued with its
carrier-based demonstrator (the Northrop Grumman X-47B), Air Force J-UCAS money was going to a classified program. At the time, the RQ-170 was just
starting flight tests, and two batches—totaling fewer than 20 aircraft—were ordered. It would serve as a stopgap until the bigger aircraft was
The classified program had a slow start because it competed with Space Radar, which enjoyed high-level support. However, with personnel changes at the
Pentagon, the Air Force concept for a long-range, unmanned, combat ISR/AEA aircraft to suppress, destroy and degrade defenses became reality.
It now appears that the large contract awarded to Northrop Grumman in early 2008, which seemed at the time to cover a demonstrator for the Next
Generation Bomber (NGB), was a development contract for the armed ISR aircraft. It is believed to be a single-engine aircraft with a wingspan similar
to a Global Hawk, and (given Northrop Grumman's enthusiasm for the cranked-kite configuration) it most likely resembles the X-47B, but with larger,
more slender outer wings. It has radar, electronic surveillance systems and active electronic warfare equipment and, quite possibly, a weapon bay for
SDBs and Miniature Air Launched Decoy-Jammer (MALD-J) expendable jamming vehicles. It may also be equipped to act as a communications gateway for
other aircraft, using either satcoms or high-frequency radio.
In the last few weeks, an industry executive has told Aviation Week that Lockheed Martin is building a “Next Generation Bomber” (not LRS-B) at
Palmdale, Calif., using some “repackaging of equipment from earlier programs.” It is possible that the project represents a restart of a program
originally launched with fiscal 2008 money—the first clean-sheet budget to follow the 2006 QDR, with its support for the 2018 bomber—and suspended
by Gates in 2009. If so, however, it is purely a demonstrator for now, because its design would not reflect changes in the requirement since 2008.
One dog-in-the-nighttime factor that supports this theory: While Northrop Grumman and Boeing have consistently identified LRS-B as a growth
opportunity in presentations to market analysts, Lockheed Martin has not, implying that it has already booked as much bomber business as it can
A 2010 Air Force presentation continues to identify “penetrating ISR” and “penetrating, stand-in AEA” as key enablers for the entire LRS
family of systems, clearing a path for the LRS-B and finding targets for cruise missiles and Prompt Global Strike weapons. Moreover, the presentation
draws a clear distinction between “proposed systems” and others—and penetrating ISR is clearly shown as one of the others, a real and funded
What this suggests is that the Air Force still believes in stealth—but not necessarily in the classic “alone and unafraid” model. Instead, the
unmanned “enablers”—the ISR platform and low-power, close-in jammers—will disrupt the defenses enough for the all-aspect, broadband stealth of
the bombers to protect them. But when the new systems will be disclosed is anyone's guess.