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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 ready.
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 expect.
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 program.
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.