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General Atomics Shows Off Company’s UCLASS Option

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An artist's concept of General Atomic's Sea Avenger UCLASS bid taken from a display monitor. US Naval Institute Photo

An artist’s concept of General Atomic’s Sea Avenger UCLASS bid taken from a display monitor. US Naval Institute Photo

General Atomics showed off images and a model of what appears to be a slightly modified version of its Sea Avenger unmanned concept aircraft at the Navy League Sea Air and Space exposition.

That might suggest the company intends to submit a design for based on the Sea Avenger airframe for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft program.

Four years ago when the Navy leadership first proposed the UCLASS program, General Atomics had aggressively pitched the Sea Avenger — based of its jet-powered Predator C variant — for the service’s nascent requirements.

Then, as it is now, there were those who favored a high-end strike aircraft, while others preferred an intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) machine designed to operate in permissive airspace.

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While it now appears that those in favor of a modest capability to perform ISR inside uncontested airspace and hit targets of opportunity have carried the day, no one outside the Navy and contractor teams will know for certain what the UCLASS specification call for because the service intends to keep that information classified.

“The draft RFP will be classified,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, Naval Air Systems Command’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons at the conference on Tuesday.

If the Navy’s requirements eschew broadband stealth in favor of a platform that is optimized for ISR in permissive airspace, General Atomics’ Sea Avenger design could find itself as one of the leading contenders.

An artist's concept of General Atomic's Sea Avenger UCLASS bid taken from a display monitor. US Naval Institute Photo

An artist’s concept of General Atomic’s Sea Avenger UCLASS bid taken from a display monitor. US Naval Institute Photo

In 2010, when General Atomics was still openly pitching the Sea Avenger design, Chris Ames, who was then the director of strategic development at the company told Defense News/C4ISR Journal that while it would not be a stealth aircraft, the Sea Avenger would “have a reduced signature, so it’s stealthier than other aircraft.”

Even if General Atomics has allowed for potential grown in terms of stealth capability on the Sea Avenger, as a simple matter of physics, it would have to be optimized for low observables in the higher frequencies such as the C, X and Ku bands.

Broadband stealth that would be effective again low frequencies such as the VHF or UHF band virtually dictate a flying wing platform. At the time, Ames has stated that the Sea Avenger would be optimized for irregular and hybrid warfare scenarios—which was a nascent Navy requirement even in 2010.

Other notable features of the current iteration of the Sea Avenger — according to the images on display —are at least four external hardpoints and a small weapons bay. Sea Avenger also appears to be capable of performing the aerial refueling tanker role using a wing-mounted buddy-refueling store. Meanwhile, some of the concept of the new Sea Avenger variant appears to be considerably larger than the older incarnation—which suggest a larger engine.

Ultimately time will tell which design was successful. Lockheed Martin and Northrop appear to be pitching broadband stealth capable flying-wing designs while General Atomics and Boeing appear to be pitching wing-body-tail concept optimized for more modest threat environments.

  • Matthew Hipple

    No, General Atomics, no one wants an “artist’s drawing.” Show me a piece of metal that flies around.

    • estuartj

      Only if the Navy pays them first. No one is going down the Northrop F-17 rat hole ever again….

      • Matthew Hipple

        And we don’t want an F-35 and/or LCS rat hole ever again.

        • allbuss84

          but they looked so good on paper!!!

  • tal ex

    Is Northrop Grumman the only company who has demonstrated their UCAV can indeed launch from and land on carriers? Why not start from X-47B instead of awarding to a different company , to start everything from scratch again?

    We don’t even know whether CG paper planes from General Atomics , Beoing or Lockheed will work. Select these designs while there is nothing to prove they are capable of carrier operations. Next there’ll be stuff like the drone is overweight , the hook doesn’t work , budget overrun, delays and more budget overruns and delays.

    • 2IDSGT

      X-47B is hardly any closer to being an actual TACAIR platform than the “burrito bomber” of YouTube-fame. It is ONLY a demonstrator program that will have to be superseded by a fly-off winner.

      Does this give NG an advantage in the upcoming UCLASS competition? Perhaps, but the information gleaned from this demonstration program belongs to the USN, which means it goes to NG’s competitors as well.

      Funny you should bring up the hook… didn’t work on the X-47 at first either. Seems the USN was handing out faulty data on wire-dynamics.

    • Bentley

      Exactly. This is a perfect example of government waste. The Navy already competed the UCAS contract, Northrop won it. They have now actually built it, (2 AV) launched it from a carrier, landed it on a carrier, operated launch/recovery from a carrier, and continue to fly it for the foreseeable future. No value to compete this AGAIN and spend billions more on a new contract and competition. Wiser for the Navy to start looking to plug UCLASS requirements into the X-47 design and upgrade it into future models and put it into production over the next decade. Why start over? And no, the UCAS data does not 100% belong to the Navy, there is a lot of IP that Northrop owns, so if a new team wins UCLASS, they will have to re-invent what has already been done not to mention they won’t have the staff on hand that knows how to actually integrate it on a carrier. Crazy to do this, but it is typical for the acquisition efficiency these days.

      BTW, X-47 just won the Collier Award. So if I am the Navy, do I want something proven and flying, or cool drawings from teams that have not landed on a boat? Let’s not forget, landing on a carrier is not the easiest thing to pull off, manned or unmanned.
      http://finance.yahoo.com/news/legendary-collier-trophy-awarded-x-180000965.html

    • Ima Right

      It s called physics. The hopeless diamond cranked wing design requires the addition depleted uranium as ballast weight in order to get the center of gravity forward of the aerodynamic center of the wing– ie achieve stability and controllable flight. This means the aircraft is conducive to long duration flight indicative of a well performing ISR asset. What the Navy needs is a carrier based global hawk. In today’s battlefield information is more powerful than a new weapon system. Remember the x-45, x-46, & x-47 were all DARPA programs looking at SEAD missions and did not go through a services needs assessment.

      • J_kies

        Why don’t we use the actual global hawk from naval Air Stations to provide uncontested ISR support (and comms) and save deck space and cat shots for shooters and tankers.

  • hateful1

    What a waste of money to operationalize a drone that cannot fight and kill in highly contested airspace – say right over Shanghai.

  • estuartj

    The USN seems at odds with itself on what they want UCASS to be. The RFP is going to be for a “base model” capable of doing long endurance ISR, but without any stealth ability, so you are looking at a carrier version of the P-8s (non-ASW) role. If it can double as a tanker that’s great.

    Hopefully this is just step 1, and they intend this base model to be upgradable to a high stealth strike or penetrating ISR version. Or perhaps they envision a larger non-penetration heavy stike airframe that can fire large numbers of stand-off ASCM or land attack missiles.

    The USN seems to be taking a crawl, walk, run approach with it’s new technology programs, including LaWS, EMRG and now UCASS. It’s not such a bad idea to start integration before locking yourself into fixed technology….