A week after recommissioning Lockheed-Martin’s X-47B proof-of-concept carrier-launched drones for additional testing, the US Navy awarded $ 15 million contracts to four companies contending to be the maker of the X-47B’s successor. The contracts are part of the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft program, which aims to produce an autonomous robotic attack plane capable of spying on and attacking enemies.
The relatively small $ 15 million contracts—awarded to Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, Boeing, and General Atomics (the manufacturer of the Predator and Reaper armed drones)—will fund preliminary design reviews of proposals from the companies. The Navy will pick a winning design by the fall of next year. The goal is to start taking delivery of the winning UCLASS drone within three to six years; just how fast the winning drone is produced will depend on how “mature” the winning design is.
The Navy has said that the UCLASS aircraft have to be compatible with the fleet’s existing bombs and that no new weapons will be designed for the aircraft. UCLASS will likely not be a replacement for the firepower of the Navy’s and the Marine Corps’ FA-18s; the goal is an aircraft capable of reconnaissance and “light strike” using existing weapons in the Navy’s arsenal, up to 250 pounds each.
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