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.
The new UAV is a joint development with the CIA, like the RQ-170, and is being managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (see page DT3). It is, by now, probably being test-flown at Groom Lake, Nev. If this is correct, it is the program for which Northrop Grumman drew on the expertise of John Cashen, the signatures lead for the B-2 program, who was consulting for the company in 2008.
Meanwhile, the small Air Force/CIA fleet of RQ-170s remains in high demand for both Middle East and Pacific operations. A CIA aircraft was reportedly overhead during the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011.
For the Air Force, the other outcome of the demise of J-UCAS was the acceleration of its next bomber initial operational capability (IOC) to 2018 from far-beyond-the-horizon 2037. The Next Generation Bomber became a real program—but devoid of nonclassified detail or funding. Quite clearly, given the IOC date and the rush by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to form a team, there had to be funding and a program organization in the classified world.
The bomber 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 re-energized in 2010 because the Air-Sea Battle concept would not become a reality without it.
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.