An intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance unmanned air vehicle is one of the more obvious applications of stealth. ISR aircraft do not have to be agile or supersonic, two expensive complicating factors for stealth technology. Stealth is one of the few ways for UAVs, which mostly cannot detect threats reliably, let alone shoot back, to survive in denied or contested airspace

There is a double bonus if the mission can be accomplished undetected, since intelligence will be untainted by camouflage or deception. It is surprising that the U.S. has only known active stealth ISR UAV programs, one of them industry-funded.

Equally odd, given the importance of the Pacific theater and the stress being placed on a future long-range strike (LRS) family of systems, is the lack of visible activity surrounding the LRS-B bomber, the centerpiece of the group.

The solution to both puzzles lies in the black world. What follows is an account of developments in the black ISR and strike realms in the past decade, and how they relate to the trajectory of white-world programs. Most sources cannot be identified.

Stealth technology for aircraft mostly originated for the most part in the ISR world, including early and unsuccessful attempts to make the U-2 stealthy: the Lockheed and General Dynamics finalists in the competition that led to the Lockheed A-12 Blackbird and the AQM-91 Compass Arrow UAV. The second wave of stealth development in the 1970s included the Northrop Tacit Blue surveillance aircraft.

In 1983, with all attention on the Soviet Union, Lockheed and Boeing were selected to co-develop the Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System (AARS) and code-named Quartz, designed to loiter in Soviet airspace and track down mobile missile launchers. Vast, expensive and dogged by competing requirements from the CIA and National Reconnaissance Office, Quartz had not flown by the end of the Cold War and was canceled in 1992.

Its shape may well have survived in the form of the RQ-3A DarkStar, also a Lockheed-Boeing project, which materialized with deeply suspicious speed as part of a UAV strategy hatched in 1994. If DarkStar originated as a subscale testbed for Quartz, that would account for its rapid appearance. Unveiled in mid-1995, DarkStar crashed on its second flight the following year. The program was finally canceled in 1999, because the U.S. Air Force could not afford both it and Global Hawk.

An April 2001 collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3E signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese fighter revived interest in a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV. Various designs were considered, including a V-tailed Lockheed Martin concept called Distant Star (or Penetrating High Altitude Endurance), but great things were expected (at the time) from high-resolution, space-based radar. Consequently, expectations were scaled back, and in late 2001 or early 2002 Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract for a simpler, medium-altitude tactical stealth UAV, which became the RQ-170 Sentinel.

Another late-1990s development that has been significant in terms of current programs was the emergence of the unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) concept. In 1999, Boeing won a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) to build two X-45A UCAV demonstrators, which were tested in 2002-06.

In the heady transformational days of the Donald Rumsfeld-led Pentagon, the UCAV gathered momentum quickly. By 2002, the Navy was looking at an operational vehicle. By 2003, the UCAV project had become Darpa's Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) and the first wing was expected in Air Force service in 2010. However, powerful forces were threatening to blow J-UCAS apart.

The Air Force wanted a bigger vehicle than an aircraft carrier could accommodate, on the grounds that persistence was a key advantage of the UCAV over a piloted aircraft. Northrop Grumman responded with successively larger versions of its X-47C design, ending up with two engines and a 172-ft. wingspan.

A further change took place in 2003, as the Air Force defined its J-UCAS as a “Global Strike Enabler.” The service built the UCAV's role around its ability to “go deep and persist,” flying into heavily defended airspace and remaining there long enough for manned strike aircraft to fly in, complete their missions and leave. This would be made possible by the UCAV's stealth, range and endurance—the service was looking for 2-hr. endurance combined with a 1,000-nm unrefueled radius.

Because it was difficult to carry enough kinetic weapons for 2 hr. of defense suppression, the Air Force was particularly interested in airborne electronic attack (AEA) and information warfare systems. The stealthy UCAV would be able to approach closer to an emitter than a manned aircraft and jam it effectively with less power. One Air Force officer noted at the time that the service was “examining various ways to use [information warfare] attack to cause an integrated air defense system to implode on itself.” Information warfare, he added, was “the great equalizer against integrated threats, because it forces them to operate autonomously.” Weapons would include up to eight Small Diameter Bombs (SDB).

Along with ISR requirements and the UCAV project, a third influence on what is happening today was the Air Force Research Laboratory's Sensor Craft program, started in the late 1990s. Sensor Craft took on the main challenge of Quartz—combining efficiency with stealth. Its main thrusts were the maintenance of natural laminar flow control on swept wings, structurally integrated sensors and unusual configurations, including joined wings. At Northrop Grumman, Sensor Craft work blended with its in-house studies of “cranked kite” configurations that were stealthy and offered “sailplane-like” efficiency, in one engineer's words. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, unveiled its Polecat demonstrator in the summer of 2006, aimed at similar goals.

Also in 2006, the Quadrennial Defense Review terminated J-UCAS. It was openly reported at the time that while the Navy continued with its carrier-based demonstrator (the Northrop Grumman X-47B), Air Force J-UCAS money was going to a classified program. At the time, the RQ-170 was just starting flight tests, and two batches—totaling fewer than 20 aircraft—were ordered. It would serve as a stopgap until the bigger aircraft was ready.

The classified program had a slow start because it competed with Space Radar, which enjoyed high-level support. However, with personnel changes at the Pentagon, the Air Force concept for a long-range, unmanned, combat ISR/AEA aircraft to suppress, destroy and degrade defenses became reality.

It now appears that the large contract awarded to Northrop Grumman in early 2008, which seemed at the time to cover a demonstrator for the Next Generation Bomber (NGB), was a development contract for the armed ISR aircraft. It is believed to be a single-engine aircraft with a wingspan similar to a Global Hawk, and (given Northrop Grumman's enthusiasm for the cranked-kite configuration) it most likely resembles the X-47B, but with larger, more slender outer wings. It has radar, electronic surveillance systems and active electronic warfare equipment and, quite possibly, a weapon bay for SDBs and Miniature Air Launched Decoy-Jammer (MALD-J) expendable jamming vehicles. It may also be equipped to act as a communications gateway for other aircraft, using either satcoms or high-frequency radio.

The new UAV is a joint development with the CIA, like the RQ-170, and is being managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (see page DT3). It is, by now, probably being test-flown at Groom Lake, Nev. If this is correct, it is the program for which Northrop Grumman drew on the expertise of John Cashen, the signatures lead for the B-2 program, who was consulting for the company in 2008.

Meanwhile, the small Air Force/CIA fleet of RQ-170s remains in high demand for both Middle East and Pacific operations. A CIA aircraft was reportedly overhead during the operation to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011.

For the Air Force, the other outcome of the demise of J-UCAS was the acceleration of its next bomber initial operational capability (IOC) to 2018 from far-beyond-the-horizon 2037. The Next Generation Bomber became a real program—but devoid of nonclassified detail or funding. Quite clearly, given the IOC date and the rush by Boeing and Lockheed Martin to form a team, there had to be funding and a program organization in the classified world.

The bomber effort was halted by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in early 2009, citing technology risks with the 2018 IOC date and the economic crash, but it was re-energized in 2010 because the Air-Sea Battle concept would not become a reality without it.

In the last few weeks, an industry executive has told Aviation Week that Lockheed Martin is building a “Next Generation Bomber” (not LRS-B) at Palmdale, Calif., using some “repackaging of equipment from earlier programs.” It is possible that the project represents a restart of a program originally launched with fiscal 2008 money—the first clean-sheet budget to follow the 2006 QDR, with its support for the 2018 bomber—and suspended by Gates in 2009. If so, however, it is purely a demonstrator for now, because its design would not reflect changes in the requirement since 2008.

One dog-in-the-nighttime factor that supports this theory: While Northrop Grumman and Boeing have consistently identified LRS-B as a growth opportunity in presentations to market analysts, Lockheed Martin has not, implying that it has already booked as much bomber business as it can expect.

A 2010 Air Force presentation continues to identify “penetrating ISR” and “penetrating, stand-in AEA” as key enablers for the entire LRS family of systems, clearing a path for the LRS-B and finding targets for cruise missiles and Prompt Global Strike weapons. Moreover, the presentation draws a clear distinction between “proposed systems” and others—and penetrating ISR is clearly shown as one of the others, a real and funded program.

What this suggests is that the Air Force still believes in stealth—but not necessarily in the classic “alone and unafraid” model. Instead, the unmanned “enablers”—the ISR platform and low-power, close-in jammers—will disrupt the defenses enough for the all-aspect, broadband stealth of the bombers to protect them. But when the new systems will be disclosed is anyone's guess.

—With Bradley Perrett in Beijing