In an example of how the next-generation of stealthy UAV will be here within the decade, Lockheed Martin has just revealed the Sea Ghost, an unmanned Naval strike jet.
While the vast majority of the world's current fleet of combat UAVs aren't much more survivable against modern air defenses than a World War I bi-plane, drone technology is set to take a giant leap forward in the next decade if all goes according to the U.S. Navy's plan to field a fighter-sized, stealthy, long-range combat drone by 2018.
The Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program calls for a fleet of jet-powered stealth drones that can do everything from refuel other planes to spy on the enemy and even drop bombs on them, all while flying autonomously. This means they are supervised by humans aboard aircraft carriers or shore installations, but the planes will execute the details of their missions -- including the incredibly difficult task of landing on an aircraft carrier in pitching seas -- on their own. Current UAVs are flown by pilots sitting in trailers, which is why the U.S. Air Force officially calls them Remotely Piloted Vehicles. (Click here to see how UCLASS will fly autonomously and land itself on carriers.)
How is the Navy going to field a brand new class of jet so quickly? It's going to base the jets off of existing technology that's been developed and proven via programs such as Northrop Grumman's X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. (The X-47B is actually being used to prove that it is possible to operate a stealthy, fighter-sized UAV from an aircraft carrier.)
To that end, Lockheed Martin is developing Sea Ghost as its proposal for the UCLASS effort. The jet, shown above, will draw on the Bethesda-Md.-based company's experiences fielding the mysterious RQ-170 Sentinel stealth UAV (made famous for spying on Osama bin Laden as well as crashing inside Iran in 2011) and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to a company statement.
Other than that, Lockheed is pretty mum about the new jet.
We do know that in addition to being stealthy, autonomous and able to quickly swap out payloads of weapons, sensors and even air-to-air refueling kits, the Sea Ghost will need to be toughened to withstand the strain of catapult launches, arrested landings and corrosive, salty ocean air. It would also seem likely that this will be a flying wing, judging from the image above and the fact that this plane will draw on Lockheed's experience with the RQ-170, which is a stealthy, jet-powered flying wing.
The UCLASS concept fits nicely into several post-Iraq/Afghanistan constructs that the military is focusing on.
First off, this jet is well suited, in theory anyway, to the Pentagon's focus on fielding new weapons capable of traveling long distances and penetrating 21st century air defenses.
This is because nations such as Iran and China have figured out how to defend against the U.S. military that awed the world in the 1990s during campaigns in the Balkans and Middle East. Potential enemies will try to keep U.S. aircraft and warships at bay by firing masses of guided missiles capable of hitting American air bases the region - and in China's case, aircraft carriers - and by fielding advanced Russian-designed air defense systems that are able to shoot down all but the stealthiest of aircraft.
UCLASS is stealthy - so that, with the help of electronic warfare gear, it has a chance of getting past enemy radars - and it can be refueled in flight, giving it fairly unlimited range and it's unmanned so that if one is shot down, a U.S. pilot won't be endangered.
The jet also fits into Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert's call for the sea service to buy relatively inexpensive, easy to develop, "trucks" that can be adapted to perform a variety of missions instead of complex and expensive weapons systems that are designed to perform a narrow set of missions. (20th Century examples of the type of truck Greenert has in mind are the B-52 bomber and the U-2 spy plane, both of which have outlasted aircraft built to replace them by decades due to their ability to be adapted to perform a wide variety of missions over the last fifty years.)
The Sea Ghost is competing against Boeing's unnamed concept jet and General Atomics' - maker of the famous MQ-1 Predator drone - jet-powered Predator C Avenger. Northrop is likely going to offer a version of its X-47B.
The Air Force is closely monitoring the Navy's progress on UCLASS since it too sees the need for a much more modern fleet of combat UAVs (it just hasn't found the money to stand up its own program, at least not publicly, who knows what it operates in addition to the super secret RQ-170 - dubbed The Beast of Kandahar after photos emerged of the then-unacknowledged aircraft operating out of Kandahar airport in Afghanistan several years ago.)