The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, who briefed a report on the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program last week, expects a decision between Boeing and Northrop Grumman this month.
Who will win? Northrop Grumman's been on the Navy UCAS trail longer than Boeing. In the DARPA UCAV era, Northrop Grumman moved into the lead on the Navy side of the project - which was widely regarded as a born loser - because Boeing had won the original X-45A demonstration and was therefore in the lead for the first near-full-size land-based jet.
After the ambitious, USAF/Navy J-UCAS project imploded early in 2006, though, it seemed that Northrop Grumman might have won after all - because the Navy jet was the only unclassified UCAV project that had a customer. Moreover, it's Northrop Grumman people who have been briefing the hell out of Navy UCAS - many of the CSBA charts and concepts are from Northrop Grumman presentations - while Boeing has skulked in its tent. The idea that the Navy UCAS is a massive range-extender for carrier air wings comes from Northrop Grumman.
But it's not necessarily that clear-cut. Boeing has gotten serious about UCAS-D. It has to. Otherwise, what does Boeing's combat-aircraft division in St Louis do to justify its existence when the Super Hornet goes away? That's not an issue for the far future: on present plans, St Louis is already testing the last major version of the F/A-18, the EA-18G Growler.
On the other hand, Northrop Grumman has Global Hawk, a big piece of JSF and a good shot at part of the Long Range Strike system, and if you talk to Northrop Grumman aircraft people they clearly wonder if the company's that committed to aeronautics anyway. (One of Northrop Grumman's stealth and aero gurus, Charlie Guthrie, just jumped ship for small-UAV-maker Insitu.)
Also, do you remember the year that the Beatles broke up? It was the same year that the last new US carrier-based jet made by anyone outside St Louis made its first flight.
While Northrop Grumman's carrier-based heritage is getting rusty - it might have been significant in the JAST program, but that's more than a decade ago - Boeing and the Navy are closely partnered on the Super Hornet program and - by the same token - St Louis has become a Navy house, dominated by the Super Hornet rather than the sunsetting F-15 Eagle.
The mutual dependence of the Navy and Boeing is important. If the Navy awards UCAS-D to Boeing, the service can guarantee that Boeing will deliver enough Missouri and allied votes on Capitol Hill to keep the program alive as long as necessary; the Keep Missouri Green contingent is a redoubtable force.
But UCAS-D does not just have to be sold in Congress. Almost 30 years of Hornets have left St Louis hip-deep in retired Navy aviators who can keep UCAS-D sold within the service. This could be a challenge for one reason alone: if you can land a UCAS on a carrier, what stops you from landing a Super Hornet with no pilot intervention?
If your answer to the last question was "nothing at all" you may take a cookie from my desk.
Next question: if the UCAS, guided mainly by GPS, is as safe as the manned airplane (it pretty much has to be - this is not a land base, where a pranged UCAV means a switch to an alternate runway) on a gin-clear calm day, which is safer on a filthy night with rain on the windshield and a heaving deck? Not hard to win the cookie on that one, is it?
UCAS technology makes a night trap about as heroic as reprogramming the TiVo, and the UCAS-D winner will have the unenviable job of selling that fact to the Top Guns.
A Boeing win would be ironic for the guys at Northrop Grumman, who were the ones who actually pushed a Navy UCAV when everyone thought the idea was nuts. If Boeing gets it, it will prove one of my favourite aphorisms - "The second mouse gets the cheese."
Credits: Northrop Grumman, Boeing