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Air Force working on two large stealth platforms

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posted on Dec, 3 2012 @ 10:23 PM
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 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.


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