Boeing Close to Choosing Carrier Drone Design

SAINT LOUIS, Mo. — Boeing is getting “very close  to having what we’d say is a very capable design” to pitch for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, Chris Chadwick, president of the company’s military aircraft division told DT at  Boeing’s Saint Louis, Mo., facilities yesterday. While he wouldn’t reveal much about the company’s UCLASS design, he did say that it definitely isn’t “a warmed-over X-45.”

The X-45, which has evolved into the Phantom Ray, was Boeing’s unsuccessful bid for the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program that is using Northrop Grumman’s X-47B to test out how to conduct carrier ops with a large, stealthy UAV.

UCLASS is the Navy’s effort to field a fighter-size, stealthy drone capable of flying long distances to spy on and attack enemies by 2018. The Sea service considers it a follow-on effort to the UCAS-D program.

A couple months ago, we showed you the drawing of a mysterious aircraft (shown above) depicting what Boeing officials said was merely a concept image for UCLASS, not a final design, and that the company was still evaluating a half dozen or so different designs that it could pitch for the effort.

Chadwick said he isn’t concerned about Northrop having an advantage over Boeing in the UCLASS program, saying that all competitors into the contest will have access to the information learned from the UCAS-D program.

Northrop is likely to offer a version of its X-47B for the UCLASS contest while General Atomics is offering a version of its Predator C Avenger, called the Sea Avenger, that’s equipped to handle the strains of catapult launches and arrested landings as well as the salty sea air and Lockheed is apparently going to bid with a yet-to-be revealed design.


  • Alex

    I welcome a Boeing follow on effort to the Phantom Ray demonstrator. Sadly for Boeing, I am inclined to believe Northrop’s X-47B already has a lock on any large systems purchase by the Navy. Regardless, UCLASS is a revolutionary step towards returning long distance offensive reach to US carrier forces.

  • blight_

    I’m not sure that having a lead in a program is a guarantor of success. Lockheed had the F-117 first and thought it would lock in the B-2 program; but lost it to Northrop.

    Northrop will have a fight on its hands for this particular fighter program. Funny how it used to be Lockheed locked out of fighter developments; but now it’s cornered the new fighter programs in the Raptor and Lightning. So it goes.

    GA has been in the UAV business the longest, and getting here means GA is finally one of the big boys. But will they be the next Convair, or something bigger?

    • Alex

      You bring up very good points. This might be the start of revolving program winners, as we have seen in the past. Lockheed currently has the F-35 to keep cash flowing into the coffers. Boeing brings the F-18, EF-18, and the K-46 into the equation. Northrop currently lacks a large scale procurement program such as these with the DOD. If anything, Northrop may be selected simply to keep the company able to perform the function in the future. This would serve to preserve the industrial base.

      • blight_

        They may borrow the LCS model and keep the top two of each aircraft around, then invent a justification for it. They would then instruct the two companies to collaborate to keep costs down, lest both programs be killed.

      • Yeah, to specify Northrop does not have a major airframe contract, They do have huge DOD contracts with their shipbuilding and submarine building. So I doubt they are super worried about being in on the airframe biz, but I’m sure they would like to.

        • Formerly Skeptic

          Northrop is no longer in the Shipbuilding business. Spun it off as Huntington Ingalls.

          • blight_

            Just like GD spun off their air and refocused as GDLS.

        • Ralph

          So you don’t consider the E-2D in production now as a major airframe contract? Or the MQ-8B and MQ-8C, MQ-4C BAMS, continued sustainment and upgrades of the EA-6B, B-2, and E-8 JSTARS? Not to mention they build almost 50% of the Super Hornet and have a large work share on the F-35.

          Oh, and they got out of shipbuilding almost 2 years ago to better focus on their core expertise, Aerospace manned and unmanned. Just because they don’t own congress like Boeing does doesn’t mean they aren’t competitive.

      • Curious

        Northrop has major contracts tiedto both the F-35 and F-18 E/F/G. They make significant portions of the fuselage for each, i believe. So they are still in the biz and have teams realted to said biz to try and keep current on the technology

        • blight_

          I guess it pays better than being an integrator who is left holding the bag…?

  • Praetor

    Is that a hidden nose refueling probe?

  • STemplar

    Probably, the UCLASS is supposed to be able to do mid air refueling.

  • STemplar

    I hope Boeing’s willingness to put forward a model and these other companies means the testing on the X47B is going well.

  • WHAT

    Pictures! Pictures! More Pictures!!!!

  • Will

    This photo has been around for a while. It’s been ‘shoped. A UAV inserted where a manned plane was. Still, who’s the plane director supposed to be waving at? I don’t think Boeing is going to stick a camera under the air intake…

  • Lance

    That’s if funds allow this plane to even be tested.

  • Why doesn’t the Global Hawk fit this requirement? Does this UAV need to be developed?

    • blight_

      Global Hawk is meant to be launched from standard long runways, fly for extreme distances with a surveillance package and then return home.

      Flying a rugged UAV possibly designed for local control by a CVN and manned aircraft motherships with autonomous refuel and catapult launch capability sounds pretty different.

  • stephen russell

    See 05 movie Stealth for Navy drone idea.
    Radical then for movie.

  • Robert

    Also see Deal of the Century w/ Chevy Chase in it, with focus of the story around a US Navy Strike Drone. Nearly 2 decades before its time (turned out was bad idea too.)

    I know its way the wind is blowing, that Combat Drone Strike craft and likely fighters will replace piloted combat planes, but i still its bad idea. Aside from fact i think some day despite any kind of protection in their systems, i think these planes will could be hijacked or be easily to fail through hacking. I rather have someone behind a stick controling stuff the with heavy weaponry than something than someone programmed UCAV to attack target on its own.

    Boeing hasn’t had any “new” designs of their own that been successful, i think their really going need get this contract to stay revelvant now that funding getting tighter.

    • Chris

      Its hard to go hypersonic and pull high-g’s with a 160lb pile of flesh in the cockpit. These designs are lead-ons to what we will be seeing in the next 50 years. Mach 20+ drones with global strike capability anywhere in the world in just a few hours. Everything has a purpose. As the battlefield changes and space-based weapons are slowly becoming a reality, we will need a prompt global-strike platform that can achieve these goals. Doesn’t mean we won’t have manned-fighters anymore, they have already made that clear.

  • Technoweapon

    Beautiful. I love to see drones like this. Keep the pilots safe, and piloting the drones, on the CV. Drones don’t have the Human limitations and can stay out much much longer.

    Without the need of a pilot in the craft there’s more room for design and equipment, too. I haven’t looked at the dimesions, yet. Are they even available? If they’re smaller than traditional aircraft you could cram a lot more drones onto a ship.

    Have a swarm of weapons flying around while keeping your pilots fresh on board.

    • Belesari

      Doesnt work that way.

      These are going to be the size of a typical manned fighter but with longer range less payload and around the same cost when all is said and done. I’m figuring around 30mil per drone. That doesnt include the control systems etc.

      Drones would be great for long range strikes in places where the US or its allies control the skies. However these wont be able to manuver and fight or flee the way a human piloted plane with a pilot right there flying would.

      This all assumes the people we fight dont just nock out our satelites with ground based lasers.

      • STemplar

        Yah, no ground based laser is going to knock down a GPS sattelite orbiting at 12,500 miles. Not even China has the Death Star yet.

  • Sanem

    “These are going to be the size of a typical manned fighter but with longer range less payload and around the same cost when all is said and done. I’m figuring around 30mil per drone. That doesnt include the control systems etc.”

    Estimated cost for these UCAVs is about $50 million. This is compared to $65 million for an F-18E, and $236.8 million for an F-35 (which in best case will be about $150 million, but I wouldn’t hold my breath). Range would be almost double, much more when you use in flight refueling. Payload would be smaller, but with SDBs and no need for AAMs, that’s not that big a problem.

    But the biggest gains are in different ways.
    Their ability to stay on station for days instead of hours will allow for a much greater mission effectiveness, combined with their lower cost you’ll be basically able to be everywhere at once, all the time. If the USAF also were to use them, you’d be able to deploy a huge number of aircraft from a single aircraft carrier.

    “Drones would be great for long range strikes in places where the US or its allies control the skies. However these wont be able to manuver and fight or flee the way a human piloted plane with a pilot right there flying would.”

    You wouldn’t need to control the skies, they’d use their stealth and EW to sneak through the enemy air defences, and take it apart piece by piece.
    F-117’s did this over Panama, Iraq and Serbia, they never carried AAMs but in over a decade they only lost a single aircraft. Now imagine hundreds of these and you’ll control the skies without the need for fighter aircraft. Park them over enemy air bases, and blow up any aircraft when it tries to land or take off.

    Which is not to say that they won’t be able to carry AAMs, I’d guess up to 4 or 6 AMRAAMs or even more AIM-9Xs should be possible. Give them targetting data from passive sensors, satellite or AWACS input, and they’ll sneak up on any enemy aircraft and shoot them down before they know what hit them.

    As for air combat manoeuvring, modern combat jet computers can recognise enemy aircraft, missiles, air defences… And respond accordingly. Give a computers a machine gun, and it can shoot down incomming missiles and mortars. Give it a UCAV that can pull really high Gs, and I’m guessing it’ll be able to avoid incomming missiles and fighter jets in ways a human would simply not survive. You can be the best and smartest fighter pilot in the world, if your target can turn twice as sharp as you, it becomes physically impossible to keep on it.
    Combine this with stealth and a networked way of combat, and multiple UCAVs will set up interlocking fields of fire from which no target can escape, and simply sneak off once they’ve fired their missiles (contrary to the F-35, which has limited rear facing stealth).

  • Belesari


    We’ve been over this before this isnt the movie stealth. First off stealth isnt magic they are not superninja’s.

    China, russia, Iran and just about every country is working on high/low radar that can detect any stealth aircraft. Hell, i’ve heard the DDG’s and CG’s could detect them with aegis. This means that while they migh go unoticed for a time by some fighters when a ground station picks them up there DEAD. These aircraft are not fighters. That is what allows them to operate for so long and fly efficently. Design.

    So they are bomb trucks i doubt they could even evade a Saber or early Mig. So they wont be doing any of that. Which the Chinese keep these aircraft around, gun fighters.

    Your giving them atributes which they dont have, or need. Indeed if they did they would cost 200mil dollars. These have a mission. Go to target area A attack targets 1 and 2 and return to base.

    I doubt drones will ever be the way your seeing them and in the end would operate far better with a human in the loop with them.

    • Belesari

      Now i Can see a couple things.

      1) Eventually pilots in fighters being able to use them sort of like mules in that they carry long range missiles which can use the targeting data from the manned fighter to attack targets at range before the manned fighters go in and then they can return to base.

      2) Unmanned refueler. It just makes sense.

      EW btw doesnt work the way you think it does. EW doesnt make you stealthy. To the contrary it lights you up like christmas. However, you spoof the hell out of radars making it almost impossible to get a lock on you which is how F-18 Growlers can force a gun fight on a F-22.

      So even if EW was part of the idea it still wouldnt be a way of avoiding attention.

  • anthony

    Having drones keep tabs on our borders in southern ca were a war is ablaze helps against alot of man hours..

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