The U.S. Navy is making strides in achieving its lofty objective of fielding up to six unmanned aerial vehicles on an aircraft carrier deck in 2020, though the path is fraught with technology and funding challenges.

The service hopes to field 4-6 yet-to-be-built Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) aircraft on a deck by the turn of the next decade, a goal that service officials admit is ambitious. But the potential strategic gain far outweighs the pitfalls. The marriage of the physical reach of aircraft carriers, which do not require host nation approval for operations, with unmanned surveillance technologies—especially when coupled with a stealthy design—will give the Navy a major advantage as the Pentagon shifts its attention from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Pacific region.

A request for proposals for the project is expected next spring. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are all expected to propose options for Uclass. Industry sources suggest the question of how much passive stealth, or low observability, to design into the platform is still being debated. The $1.4 billion X-47B demonstration project is intended to prove the Navy's ability to operate a tailless unmanned aircraft on and around an aircraft carrier. But, it is still unclear whether stealth will be critical for the capability set desired for the Uclass reconnaissance aircraft.

Industry sources say the Navy is trying to protect the money needed to start the Uclass program. However, fiscal pressure and a mounting showdown in Congress over how to address the massive national debt is threatening the Pentagon's budget. Programs that haven't yet started are especially vulnerable to cuts because they do not involve existing contracts, which could incur penalties if scaled back.

Meanwhile, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) program, a technology demonstration precursor to Uclass, made significant strides last month. Navy officials successfully launched the first X-47B (Air Vehicle-1), a stealthy, tailless platform, from a steam catapult Nov. 29 at NAS Patuxent River, Md. For this first test, the aircraft reached an airspeed of 151 kt. for launch and climbed out at a peak pitch of 15.5 deg, says Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman's UCAS program manager. The aircraft executed a standard carrier approach pattern during its 10-min. flight. It reached 1,200 ft. in altitude before gliding in at 3.25 deg. for a standard runway landing.

Northrop redesigned the X-47B tailhook because engineers had placed it too close to the landing gear. The distance didn't allow the landing cable to bounce and rest back on the ground so the tailhook could scoop under the cable and connect to it. The problem is similar to that experienced by Lockheed Martin with the F-35C tailhook. The redesign, executed in 45 days, has proven successful in three arrestment roll-in demonstrations, says Capt. Jamie Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager.

Arrested landing trials are slated to start early next year.

Testing with AV-1 will continue to expand the envelope in preparation for catapult launches and arrested landings on a carrier deck planned next summer. Navy officials have not yet identified which carrier will host the demonstrations. Carrier availability and budget reduction talks in Washington could jeopardize the schedule. Engdahl says the Navy is outfitting all of its East Coast-based Nimitz-class carriers to at least temporarily handle the aircraft. Originally, the Navy had planned to begin trials on a carrier in fiscal 2011, but that schedule slipped because extra time was needed for Northrop to develop the information interface between the aircraft and the ship.

Meanwhile, operators on the USS Harry S. Truman are executing deck-handling trails with AV-2 while in port. The aircraft has executed engine runs, telemetry and communications checks and been moved around the deck, on the elevators and in the hangar bay, says Don Blottenberger, Navy deputy program manager. Eventually, testers will taxi the aircraft into position on the ship's catapult, but there are “many steps before we are ready” to go to a catapult on a sea-based carrier, Engdahl says.

Once the Truman is underway, operators plan to maneuver AV-2 on the deck and in the hangar bay using a wireless control display unit.

“The most interesting challenge is the integration of these technologies onto the aircraft carrier and into the manned paradigms of flight” for the carrier air wing. Operators want interactions with the X-47B to duplicate those for manned aircraft, so as to maintain the cadence of operations on the deck.

Depending on progress in the testing program, program officials have reserved the option of flying AV-1 into the Truman's airspace—once the carrier is underway—to demonstrate a mission control element, navigation systems and data links needed for connectivity between the two.