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Naval Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV-N)

The goal of the joint DARPA/Navy UCAV-N program is to demonstrate the technical feasibility for an unmanned system to effectively and affordably conduct sea-based surveillance, strike and suppression of enemy air defense missions within the emerging global command and control architecture.

The DARPA/Navy Naval Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, or UCAV-N program, is a high-risk, but potentially high-payoff endeavor with the promise to prove the viability of a weapon system which might significantly enhance the war-fighting capabilities of the Naval Services in the 21st century. The goal of the joint DARPA/Navy project is to demonstrate the technical feasibility for a UCAV system to effectively and affordably conduct sea-based 21st century suppression of enemy air defenses, strike and surveillance missions within the emerging global command and control architecture.

In DARPA's vision, the UCAV provides revolutionary new tactical air warfare capability, a weapon system that can be employed with the daring of a kamikaze but without the attendant ceremony, sorrow, and loss of the aircraft. Leaving the pilot at home eliminates risk to a very talented citizen. In addition, not accommodating a human on board the aircraft permits DARPA to design a machine that will be much less expensive to build and operate than a manned aircraft. In the Navy's draft RFP [request for proposals], they requested that the contractors propose appropriate autonomous aerial refueling capabilities.

The Naval program, initiated in the summer of 2000 with Boeing and Northrop Grumman competitive teams, builds on DARPA/Air Force program research to explore Naval applications [launched and recovered from ships or Marine Corps austere bases ashore] for suppression of enemy air defenses and deep strike. In addition, DARPA looked at using the same aircraft or a variant for surveillance missions. Inclusion of surveillance in the mission set reflects the need for shipboard aircraft to be multi-mission capable, and the need for the Battle Group Commander to maintain an operational picture round the clock.

It should be obvious that operation in this environment is markedly different from operation from an Air Force Base. As part of the naval global network centric warfare architecture, UCAV-N mission controllers will exploit real time data sources from the theater information architecture to respond to the dynamically changing battlefield.

The system will create superior situation awareness by leveraging the many sources of information available at both the tactical and theater levels. We will take into consideration this entire system of systems when conducting our design trades, thus ensuring that an optimal air vehicle, mission control system and external interface are developed.

The system is based on the concept of Network Centric Warfare. The Mission Control System will employ operators at the center of information. Using intelligent decision aids, a single controller will be able to monitor and control several aircraft simultaneously.

The air vehicle itself will be intelligent; for example it will diagnose its current health and prognose its future health so that it can maximize its mission capability with degraded functionality. At the squadron level, higher echelon tactical unit levels, and fleet levels, an autonomic logistics system will suggest courses of action to tactical commanders to maximize effectiveness of the aircraft and parent fighting units.

As a product of the latest aircraft, design, manufacturing, and support concepts, the aircraft will be an affordable system to procure and operate. We have adopted the Autonomic Logistics concept developed by the Joint Strike Fighter Program. Thus supportability will be an integral part of the design, providing for minimal maintenance requirements and a very high sortie rate. Te inclusion of size in the overarching metric emphasizes the criticality of shipboard deck space.

DARPA's vision is that unmanned aircraft can effectively and affordably prosecute persistent, sea-based suppression of enemy air defenses, deep strike, and surveillance missions within the 21st century global command and control architecture. To realize this vision, DARPA must mature and demonstrate a control system for multi-vehicle operations in Naval environments; a low life-cycle cost, mission effective sea-based design for the air vehicle; a command, control and communications system which is over-the-horizon capable as well as line-of-sight; dynamic mission planning & management approaches; off-board/on-board sensor fusion; as well as weapon carriage and targeting. And finally, getting at the basic reason for a Naval UCAV program distinct from its land-based counterpart, DARPA would develop the concept for and demonstrate ship-based operations including launch and recovery, deck handling and storage, maintenance and training, and interoperability with other Naval aviation systems.

Trade studies, analysis and preliminary design for a naval unmanned combat air vehicle looked at various issues. Should the aircraft do catapult takeoffs and arrested landings? Self-accelerated free deck launches combined with vertical landings? Or how about vertical takeoff and landings? These require a big engine and a complex control system but might be much less emotionally disturbing to the Air Boss and Flight deck crew. How many weapons should it carry? Does it need bomb bays or external carriage racks? How do the Mission Controller and the Landing Signal Officer relate? How is the aircraft controlled when it is moving about the flight deck? How much autonomy will the aircraft have in its various mission phases? How much bring-back payload does the aircraft need? Etc., etc.

Because of the performance required, contractors envisioned a carrier based, catapult launched and arrested landing aircraft. And therefore, both contractors had to come came to grips with the difficult process of designing "sea legs" - carrier capability - into a UCAV. First came the realization that storage in a box was not appropriate for the carrier environment.this was strictly a "real estate" issue. The aircraft carrier is 4-1/2 acres of sovereign US territory that can be moved at will at sea. That small bit of acreage is very costly, and anything that goes on it must earn its way aboard.

A storage approach would necessarily imply only using the UCAV weapon system in a small part of the spectrum of conflict. An aircraft carrier has missions all across that spectrum, from everyday "presence" missions to the first day and first hour of a major theatre conflict. To displace multi-mission aircraft with stored "silver bullets" was not an attractive option. Besides, the Navy's real need was for a complement to its already existent manned strike fighters and their stand-off weapons - what was needed was a penetrating, focused surveillance/reconnaissance platform that could provide targeting and bomb hit assessment. In addition, it needed the lethality to deal with fleeting high priority targets where appropriate.

Finally it had to be capable of safe carrier landings. This brought a whole new realm of reliability requirements. One cannot think of a naval UCAV as an unmanned system. It is instead a part of the biggest manned system in the US military - the aircraft carrier. Reliability standards reflect this distinction.

UCAV-N Phase I

The UCAV-N program is an outgrowth of a DARPA-Air Force research program started in 1998. The primary objective of that program was, and is, to develop and demonstrate an unmanned, airborne, reusable, weapon system for the suppression of enemy air defenses. The Naval UCAV ATP takes advantage of the work performed under the DARPA/Air Force UCAV Advanced Technology Demonstration Program. However, the Naval UCAV ATP adds surveillance to the mission set, and will include a significant focus on issues of Naval shipboard integration.

The UCAV-N science and technology program had two phases.

Phase I of the Naval program was 15-18 months in length. In Phase 1 DARPA intended to progressively refine the Operational System concepts as well as develop a system maturation plan and demonstration system requirements. To achieve these goals, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are currently conducting system analyses; trades studies and risk assessments to refine Operational System designs and System Maturation Plans. Phase I of the program was conducted as a joint DARPA/Navy effort. Boeing and Northrop Grumman were under contract to conduct Phase 1.

On June 30, 2000 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and U.S. Navy awarded two agreements for the first phase of the Naval Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV-N) Advanced Technology Program (ATP). Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing each received $2 million for the initial 15-month trade study, analyses, and preliminary design phase. Phase I, consisting primarily of trade studies, ended in March 2002.

The goal of the joint DARPA/Navy project is to demonstrate the technical feasibility for a naval UCAV system to effectively and affordably conduct sea-based 21st century suppression of enemy air defenses, strike, and surveillance missions within the emerging global command and control architecture. At the conclusion of the 15-month preliminary design phase, DoD will decide whether to proceed with the second phase. DoD would select one or both contractors for the second phase to complete the development and demonstration of critical naval UCAV system technologies.

The UCAV-N ATP was the next step towards a revolutionary new weapon system that will augment future manned systems as part of an integrated, post-2010 force structure. Future naval UCAV systems will fully utilize the emerging information revolution. They will take advantage of multiple, real-time data sources and secure communication networks to plan for, and respond to, the dynamically changing battlefield. By removing the pilot from the vehicle a new standard in aircraft affordability and supportability will be achieved. Capitalizing on technical advances by UCAVs will provide the nation with increased tactical deterrence at a fraction of the costs of current manned systems.

The Naval UCAV ATP takes advantage of the work that continues to be performed under the DARPA/Air Force UCAV Advanced Technology Demonstration Program. However, the Naval UCAV ATP adds surveillance to the mission set, and will include a significant focus on issues of Naval shipboard integration.


Work was also underway in 2002 on the financial and programmatic aspects of Phase II. Both contractors were funded to enter Phase IIA to develop computer simulations and model their concepts of operation.

On 21 May 2002 Northrop Grumman Corporation's Integrated Systems sector was awarded a contract to continue its work on a naval unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV-N) for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US Navy under a modification to an existing agreement. Under the $10 million contract modification, which ran until Sept. 30, 2004, Northrop Grumman conducted additional technology and risk-reduction studies, including modeling and simulation of autonomous flight operations from an aircraft carrier.

The Navy funded both contractors for follow-on Phase IIB to actually build the demonstrator aircraft. One contractor would build two X-47B air vehicles, and the other would deliver two X-45C air vehicles.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:38:40 ZULU