RAF FAIRFORD - Completion of initial operational test and evaluation and the subsequent full-rate production decision for the U.S. Navy’s RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aircraft is on hold due to ship availability.

A tranche of sea trials were set for this month but cut short as the USS New York, a San Antonio class amphibious dock ship, was called away for duty, says Mike Kurth, who oversees Boeing’s unmanned systems business.

The second IOT&E (initial operational test & evaluation) trial was set to ensure the system was suitable for shipboard operations. Only roughly a week more is needed for testing on the ship and full-rate production is now expected next year, Kurth said during a July 11 interview at the Royal International Air Tattoo here.

The RQ-21A is rail launched and recovered on the ship using the “Skyhook,” a vertical wire the unmanned aircraft uses to catch itself.

Boeing’s Insitu builds the RQ-21A; its commercial version is called the Integrator.

Prior to the halted sea trials, officials expected to wrap them up on summer in preparation for a possible full-rate production decision in the fall, U.S. Marine Corps Col. James Rector, the Navy’s program manger, said this spring.

Kurth said the team is awaiting another slot on the ship to finally prove shipboard operations are sound.

Much of the testing for Blackjack was done on the ground, Rector had said.

Meanwhile, early versions of the Blackjack -– not cleared for ship use -– have been rushed to support soldiers in Afghanistan, and operations have “gone surprisingly well,” Kurth says. Thus far, these “early operational capability” aircraft have flown roughly 300 hr. per month, twice the rate they were slated to execute, he says.

One system -– including five of the unmanned aircraft and associated ground support equipment -– were rushed to the front.

Work is ongoing to examine additional payloads to integrator’s standard EO/IR, communications relay and ship identification system systems. Among those being studied is a synthetic aperture radar, a beyond-line-of-sight datalink and new signals intelligence payload.