Takeoff at 1:21
Northrup Grumman's X-47B demonstrator was successfully launched from the U.S.S George H.W Bush earlier this morning. Despite the historic milestone set by the X-47B, Northrup Grumman still faces fierce competition for the UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike) contract. Both the General Atomics Sea Avenger and Lockheed Martin Skunk Works' "Sea Ghost" are formidable contenders (Boeing might submit a design of its own based on the X-45C Phantom Ray). Despite the fact that Northrop Grumman is America's third largest defense contractor, the company has been hit hard by the recent budget cuts to the Pentagon. The Global Hawk Block 30 has been canceled and the Block 40 variant is potentially on the chopping block as well. Northrup really needs the UCLASS win. The finalist of the UCLASS program will enter service in the 2018-2019 time frame.
Whomever wins the UCLASS contract, the United States will continue to maintain a dominant edge in UAV technology. With the possible exception of Israel, nobody comes even remotely close to the US in terms of UAV technology (no pun intended). A lot of media attention has focused on the rapid development of UAV's from Europe and China. The latter is especially a cause for concern if the rumors about China's new stealth drone (below) are true. The real measure of how capable the stealth Dassault nEUROn and the potential Lijian drone comes down to the effectiveness of internal sensors, software, and avionics not the airframe itself. Many countries have, to varying degrees of effectiveness, demonstrated an ability to design low observable airframes. However, the effectiveness of internal components are another story entirely. The United States has at least a ten year lead in terms of internal UAV systems. Passive stealth also remains an issue for many would-be UAV developers. Of all the areas of concern the United States has, in terms of loosing its technological edge relative to the rest of the world, UAV technology is certainly not a problem.
Lockheed Martin's "Sea Ghost" concept video below. The Sea Ghost incorporates technology from both the RQ-170 Sentinel and the F-35C. Note how the Sea Ghost concept features a grill in the front similar to the RQ-170. Its also worth noting that the Sea Ghost concept does not feature the signature double humps located on the Sentinel . My prediction is the UCLASS contract will come down to the Sea Ghost and Northrup Grumman proposal as the finalists. To say Sunk Works has a reputation for aerospace excellence would be an understatement.