Indications Of Two Black USAF Aircraft Programs
Aviation Week & Space Technology Dec03, 2012 , p. 29
Signs of secret USAF aircraft programs
The U.S. Air Force’s classified research and development budget is supporting two major programs, according to industry and government sources: an unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft developed by Northrop Grumman and a bomber demonstrator from Lockheed Martin .
In the last few weeks, an industry executive has told Aviation Week that Lockheed Martin is building a “Next Generation Bomber”—the name NGB was used, although the Air Force’s requirement is now known as the Long-Range Strike Bomber—at Palmdale, Calif.
Sources continue to suggest that the large, secret contract awarded to Northrop Grumman in early 2008, which seemed at the time to cover an NGB demonstrator, was the start of a full-scale development program for an ISR UAV. This aircraft is believed to be in flight-testing.
Both programs appear to have some roots in the early-2000s Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) project. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched J-UCAS as a large-scale effort in 2002, but it was terminated in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) because requirements of the U.S. Navy and Air Force were diverging sharply.
It was reported at the time that Air Force J-UCAS money was going to a classified program. The QDR also accelerated the Air Force’s next bomber to a 2018 initial operational capability (IOC) date from far-beyond-the-horizon 2037—but the NGB never acquired any non-classified detail or funding.
Air Force briefings during the J-UCAS era, overlooked until recently, may indicate the genesis of the service’s requirement for the new ISR UAV. By 2003, the Air Force was defining its J-UCAS version as a “Global Strike Enabler.” It built the UCAV’s role around its ability to “go deep and persist,” flying into heavily defended airspace and remaining there long enough for manned strike aircraft to complete their missions and leave. This would be made possible by the UCAV’s stealth, range and endurance—the service was looking for 2-hr. endurance combined with a 1,000-nm unrefueled radius.
Because it was difficult to carry enough kinetic weapons for 2 hr. of defense suppression, the Air Force was particularly interested in airborne electronic attack and information warfare systems. The highly stealthy UCAV would be able to approach closer to an emitter than a manned aircraft and jam it effectively with less power.
The mission required a combination of aerodynamic efficiency and broadband, all-aspect stealth. This was a goal of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Sensor Craft program, started in the late 1990s. 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 unveiled its Polecat demonstrator in the summer of 2006, aimed at similar goals.
Northrop Grumman ‘s design is believed to be a single-engine cranked-kite aircraft with a wingspan similar to a Global Hawk . It has radar, electronic surveillance systems and active electronic warfare equipment, and, quite possibly, a weapon bay for Small-Diameter Bombs and Miniature Air-Launched Decoy-Jammer expendable jamming vehicles. It may also be equipped to act as a communications gateway for other aircraft, using either satcoms or high-frequency radio.
The initial NGB effort was halted by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in early 2009, citing technology risks with the 2018 IOC date and the economic crash, but it was reenergized in 2010 in support of the Pentagon’s “Pacific pivot” and the Air-Sea Battle concept.
The newly reported Lockheed Martin bomber project may represent a restart of a demonstrator program originally launched in 2008—a theory supported by the use of the old NGB nomenclature and the fact that it is said to use some “repackaging of equipment from earlier programs.”
The Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) may be associated with one or both programs. Formed in April 2003, the RCO reports at a high level, its board of directors comprising the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (“acquisition czar” Frank Kendall) and the Air Force secretary and chief of staff, bypassing the Pentagon’s special programs directorate.
Its only acknowledged effort is the Boeing X-37B spaceplane, but the RCO’s focus can be gauged by the fact that a recruitment notice for its deputy director identifies only three mandatory areas of “significant experience, . . . low-observables, counter-low-observables and electronic warfare.” The RCO is believed to lead Air Force involvement in the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel program.
The RCO’s patch logo carries a Latin motto, translated as “doing God’s work with other people’s money,” which points to a funding model that involves connecting the end user—the combat command or intelligence agency that can direct the budget—with the technology. Of the $11.2 billion Air Force classified R&D funding for fiscal 2013, about $8 billion is transferred in kind or as cash to the intelligence community. Those funds could involve Air Force personnel or air vehicles.