The U.S. Navy is calling for competitive prototyping in preparation for fielding its first squadron of Unmanned Combat Air Systems (UCAS) by 2025.
NUCAS is expected to replace the Navy's F/A-18s on aircraft carrier decks, and the system will provide greater range and time on station than the manned fleet. This shift will project Navy air power far beyond today's reach, adding more protection to ships at sea.
This strategy puts the Navy at the forefront of the Pentagon's efforts to field combat drones; the U.S. Air Force has decided to create a manned design for its next-generation bomber for fielding in 2018.
The Navy is conducting an analysis of alternatives to narrow down its choices for the F/A-18 replacement, dubbed the F/A-XX program.
In lockstep, officials at Naval Air Systems Command are formulating an acquisition strategy to build off of work handled by Northrop Grumman, which is building two NUCAS demonstrators, according to Capt. Martin Deppe, NUCAS program manager. Northrop Grumman beat Boeing for the $635 contract to design and test the suitability of a tailless, low-observable design operating in and around aircraft carriers.
The first demonstrator flight is set for November 2009, and carrier trials will be complete in late 2012.
Deppe says the acquisition strategy for a follow-on to the demonstrator project will likely be ready in 2011. Though Deppe says he wants to have competing prototypes, the strategy does not call for new air vehicle designs.
The would-be competitors would simply need to demonstrate the technologies in an operationally relevant environment. The contractors could demonstrate their architectures using aircraft already cleared for carrier ops.