19 December 2018
The Uninhabited Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) is the most futuristic application for UAVs, and has seen considerable turmoil over the past decade, while the services thrashed out what they expected from the program. DARPA headed the original program, followed by a DoD consolidation, only to see DoD again break up the program with the Navy pursuing the carrier-based J-UCAS and the Air Force effort disappearing "into the black".
The Navy program seems to have ended in 2016 with the shift from the UCLASS strike/ISR to the CBARS aerial refueling system. However, it is also possible that the Navy has shifted its stealth/strike UAS "into the black”.
The Air Force has been the more enthusiastic proponent of this technology. It is unbelievable that the
USAF simply dropped interest in UCAV in 2006, and presumably it is engaged in a classified program. The Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel is one sign of a classified ISR program, but it would not be especially surprising if Boeing is developing a UCAV with the Phantom Ray being simply a public cover for a black program. The USAF may pursue more than a single UCAV program, one aimed at tactical strike requirements and one for long-range penetrating ISR requirements. The tactical program would most likely be a stealth recon-naissance/strike platform aimed at providing a capability to conduct suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions if the air defense environment becomes more hostile than it is today and would replace the recently retired F-117 Blackhawk.
The problem with the Air Force program is that much of this activity will probably be in the black world for several years. As a result, the scope and direction of the program will be publicly invisible.
The Air Force is beginning to pursue a long-range platform to take up the slack from its aging and hodge-podge collection of B-52s, B-1s and B-2s. The Air Force has stated that it would lean towards a manned option for the B-21 Raider strategic bomber, but given its past predilection for black aircraft programs, an unmanned bomber remains a possibility, or an “optionally” manned aircraft.