It's not every day that you get to see a new stealth jet unveiled, but today Lockheed Martin's famed Skunk Works division posted these artist's renderings of its bid for the Navy's next attack jet at its booth at the Navy League's annual Sea Air Space conference just outside of Washington.
Remember, the Navy is trying to field a fleet of stealthy, unmanned fighter-sized jets that can launch from an aircraft carrier, fly through enemy air defenses and do everything from bomb targets to spy on them under a program called Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike or UCLASS.
Last summer, Lockheed showed us a very unrevealing drawing of what it said would be its UCLASS bid, nicknamed the Sea Ghost. These pictures offer a far better look at the jet.
The plane above looks remarkably similar to Lockheed's super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel spy plane, nicknamed the Beast of Kandahar by reporters after grainy photos of it operating in Afghanistan emerged in 2008. (A Sentinel was famously captured by Iran in late 2010, giving the world its first close-up view of the jet.) When yours truly pointed out the similarities between Lockheed's UCLASS bid and the Sentinel to a company spokeswoman, she just smiled and said she had no idea what I was talking about. It makes sense for Lockheed to base the airplane on an existing stealth drone since the Navy wants UCLASS operating from carriers by the end of this decade.
While the spokeswoman couldn't say anything about the plane beyond that it will be flying sometime around 2018 to 2020, she did provide Killer Apps with a quick fact sheet.
Lockheed says the jet will be based on its existing manned and unmanned planes and will feature a "maximum reuse of hardware and software," according to the factsheet posted below. (This means the plane will incorporate technology developed for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well as the RQ-170.) Still, the jet will need to have a tail hook added, wings that fold (to fit on a carrier's crowded deck), and have its airframe strengthened to withstand the pressures of catapult launches and arrested landings, as well as the corrosive sea air,
As you can see from these pictures, the plane doesn't feature the RQ-170's two large humps, which likely sensors contain communications gear, on the top and bottom of its fuselage. This is likely because the Sentinel was designed a decade or more ago and sensor and comms technology has shrunk in size dramatically since then.
Like all modern stealth jets, Lockheed's UCLASS bid features "signature control," meaning it doesn't just rely on a stealthy shape to remain undetected. It will feature a combination of radar absorbing coatings, heat-masking technology, and various ways of protecting its electronic emissions (radar, satellite communications, etc.) from detection by an enemy, according to the factsheet.
Finally, one operator aboard an aircraft carrier or ashore will be able to control multiple jets as they carry out missions. This last attribute is a key tenet of the UCLASS program, which seeks to field a fleet of semi-autonomous drones that can do everything from land themselves on aircraft carriers to refuel in midair with a pilot simply supervising the mission.