What’s going on with the Pentagon’s longest-running drama, the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) program? After years of factional intrigue that made Borgia politics look like a Dick & Jane reader, the debate about Uclass specifications has been declared not over, but deferred. (How can there not be enough data to make a decision?) But instead of redoubling their lobbying, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman appear to have walked away.

In January, market analysts grilled Boeing CEO Jim McNerney about the future of the company’s St. Louis operations, which were facing the shutdown of their fighter programs. He seemed unworried—and whatever you think of Boeing/Lockheed Martin’s chances in the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) contest, neither side has a contract in hand.

Then the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings website reported that Uclass had been designated RAQ-25. Under Pentagon rules, programs don’t get designators; only vehicles do.

U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a member of the cabal that has been pushing for a high-end Uclass, was discreet in an early-February discussion. “I’m pretty comfortable with the direction that the program is taking,” he said. “I’m not trying to be vague. I just don’t want to go to jail.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work (a supporter of unmanned combat air systems in his previous jobs) explained the Uclass delay in February comments: “In addition to looking at capabilities that we already have and using them differently, we’re going to make sure . . . that when we go after a new platform, it’s the platform that we need from a joint perspective.”

A joint platform is a U.S. Air Force/Navy program—the term can have no other meaning—but if Work is arranging a marriage for Uclass, where’s the bridegroom? When orbital patterns are so disturbed, it’s time to look for a dark planet somewhere in the system.

In October 2010, Maj. Gen. Dave Scott, head of the Air Force’s operational requirements directorate, gave a briefing that disclosed the service’s plans for a long-range strike family of systems (LRS-FoS)—plans that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved a few months later.

Three family members are real today: LRSB, the Long-Range Standoff cruise missile and a “penetrating intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (P-ISR) vehicle, which is Northrop Grumman’s secret RQ-180. (A fourth, Conventional Prompt Global Strike, was dropped like a bad habit as soon as the Pentagon’s exit door closed behind its leading advocate, and was replaced by the Minuteman follow-on.)

That leaves one: Penetrating Airborne Electronic Attack (P-AEA). In the LRS-FoS plan, RQ-180 would find targets for LRSB and the P-AEA would suppress defenses. Together, they fill the capabilities gap between the cost-constrained LRSB and the Battlestar-Galactica Next-Generation Bomber (NGB) that Gates canceled in 2009.

Also, after P-AEA appeared in Scott’s briefing, the Air Force terminated its nascent MQ-X project, leaving itself with no visible solution to an obvious problem, which is a large force of MQ-9 Reapers that can be shot down with World War II weapons.

P-AEA appears in no known plan, but you need not dig very deep into the Air Force’s fiscal 2016 budget to find $7 billion in classified acquisition money that is neither part of the cash that the Pentagon launders for the intelligence community, nor the LRSB.

And between early 2007, when Boeing became Lockheed Martin’s partner on the NGB, and October 2013, when the companies re-partnered with Boeing in the front seat, St. Louis proved it had the chops to be publicly and unequivocally identified as the lead on that huge, critical and complex program. Boeing’s stealth expertise has been shown in the X-36, X-45, Bird of Prey and Phantom Ray, but that’s still not the same as delivering and sustaining a complete system.

What follows is a speculative scenario, an exercise in the risky art of connect-the-dots:

A classified P-AEA program started in 2011-12. It may have involved flight demonstrations. Quite recently, Boeing won it, hence McNerney’s confidence about St Louis’s future. It’s been designated RAQ-25, indicating it has a strike capability, and as well as pathfinding for the LRSB, it takes on the MQ-X role. RAQ-25 is somewhere in that $7 billion slush fund.

Work’s comments about “capabilities that we already have” indicate he and other leaders are pushing for a joint Air Force/Navy program based on the RAQ-25. The delay in Uclass allows time for a carrier variant to be demonstrated, and competitors have deemed the battle half over.

Returning to known facts: 

This would be exactly the same as the solution proposed in October by a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments paper on the Pentagon’s Third Offset plan for a future U.S. military. You almost wonder if they knew something.