First of all folks, please excuse the delay in posting. I am on a trip this week and wasn't able to establish comms until today -- and Ward's off on a trip as well.
I'll be up and running throughout the week, but the frequency may be down a bit from before.
Here's a great piece of reporting from our friends at Aviation Week on a program I see as the future of Navy strike aviation. I got a few more tidbits from some sources at the Navy League confernece I'll add a little later on this subject, but chew this over first and we'll update soon.
This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.
Northrop Grumman officials are promoting their unmanned strike aircraft being designed for the U.S. Navy as a "first-generation" unmanned combat aerial system (UCAS) with capabilities that include early missile defense intercepts.
The initial platform for a new strike fighter design is based on the company's X-47B, but Northrop researchers are actually assembling an internal system that could fit into a variety of airframes, according to Scott Winship, vice president and program manager of Navy UCAS. The aircraft would incorporate "marinized low observability" and air-to-air refueling as well as advanced sensors, targeting and weapons.
However, Winship contends that a mix of fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35s and Northrop's UCAS would be a far more powerful combination than Boeing Super Hornets teamed with the UCAS because of the F-35's ability to penetrate foreign air defenses in combination with the unmanned aircraft.
With surprising candor, Winship identified important new capabilities for the unmanned strike aircraft including boost-phase intercept (BPI) of enemy ballistic missiles soon after launch and the carriage of new, compact, directed-energy weapons. He said options will include both laser and high-power microwave (HPM) weapons. Lasers are seen as a key BPI weapon while HPM is critical to electronic attack.
The new design also will address the U.S. military's fading electronic-attack (EA) capability. The Air Force has failed to come up with a new EA capability for the near term, and by 2012, the Navy will retire its EA-6B Prowlers, which now provide that capability to the expeditionary air forces.
"The Navy is going to be out of the EA-6B business," says Capt. Steve Kochman, manager of the EA-6B program. "There are ways the [Air Force need] can be filled, [but] I'm not endorsing any of them." So, for now the program of record has the Navy stepping out of the Air Force mission and a replacement capability has not been approved. "Something will have to be worked out," he said.
"Broadband, all-aspect stealth is next-generation," which is reflected in the cranked-kite, tailless X-47B design, Northrop's Winship said. "It is also sensors -- signals and electronic intelligence -- and directed energy." Conformal antenna arrays -- eight on the top side of the aircraft and eight below -- will also contribute to low observability and provide 360-degree coverage.
Advanced air-to-air missiles are being studied as part of the BPI mission as well as directed energy and rechargeable weapons that could be carried as palletized units sized for the weapons bays' 4,500-pound payload carrying capability. Alternative weapons bay doors would be fitted with apertures for the directed energy weapons.
Northrop designers are looking for an aircraft that can fly 50-100 hour missions and that can go into the toughest, so-called fourth zone of enemy air defenses.
Navy and Marine Corps electronic warfare requirements officials later described the mission as "stand-in [jamming, electronic attack or strike] within a surface-to-air missile's no escape zone."