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US Navy Moves Ahead To Develop Unmanned Carrier Aircraft

Aug. 14, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS   |   Comments
One of the Navy's two X-47B concept demonstrator aircraft makes a landing aboard the aircraft carrier George H W Bush on July 10. The X-47Bs proved engineering concepts for designing unmanned carrier-based jet aircraft, the objective of the new UCLASS program.
One of the Navy's two X-47B concept demonstrator aircraft makes a landing aboard the aircraft carrier George H W Bush on July 10. The X-47Bs proved engineering concepts for designing unmanned carrier-based jet aircraft, the objective of the new UCLASS program. (Christopher P. Cavas / Staff)
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WASHINGTON — As expected, the US Navy has awarded four development contracts to develop designs to compete for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) Air Vehicle.

The contracts — each for $15 million — went to the Boeing Co., St. Louis, Mo.; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., Poway, Calif.; Lockheed Martin Corp., Palmdale, Calif.; and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., El Segundo, Calif.

According to the contract announcements, the preliminary design review assessment is to support UCLASS, a system “to enhance aircraft carrier/air wing operations by providing a responsive, world-wide presence via an organic, sea-based unmanned aerial system, with persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting, and strike capabilities.”

A presolicitation for the Aug. 14 awards was announced on March 26, with a request for proposals being issued on June 10.

Officials for the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) have said a competition for a final airframe design is expected to begin sometime after January.

The UCLASS is to be an operational, jet-powered aircraft, able to carry out persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and engage in strike missions at ranges up to 2,000 nautical miles.

The basic technology for a carrier-based, unmanned jet aircraft has been proven by Northrop Grumman’s X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program, which produced two test aircraft. The first carrier launch of the aircraft took place May 14, and the first landings were performed on July 10, successfully completing the test program requirements.

With the UCAS-D test program complete, Navy officials, had declared their intention to dispose of the two X-47Bs next year, probably to museums. However, on Aug. 13 NAVAIR officials modified that plan and announced the aircraft would continue to be used in testing programs.

“Upon further review of the successful UCAS-D demonstration efforts, the Navy has decided to postpone the retirement of the X-47B system as it assesses potential opportunities for further land- and sea-based testing and verification efforts,” NAVAIR said in a statement.

“These efforts would focus on continuing risk reduction for the follow-on UCLASS program, developing unmanned aircraft carrier fleet concept of operations and assessing potential incorporation of the X-47B system into the NAVAIR research and development infrastructure.”

Navy aviation officials are planning for the UCLASS to become operational with the fleet by 2020.

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