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January 14, 2020 | International, Aerospace

Stealthy UAS Unveiled For USAF Target, Loyal Wingman Needs

Steve Trimble

A small start-up company in California has unveiled a new proposal for a stealthy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to offer the U.S. Air Force as a “fifth-generation” target drone or a low-cost attritable aircraft.

Tehachapi, California-based Sierra Technical Services, a company founded by previously retired Lockheed Martin Skunk Works engineers, unveiled the first photos of the completed Fifth Generation Aerial Target (5GAT) prototype after completing engine tests on the ground. A first flight of the 5GAT is scheduled in early 2020.

The name of the aircraft is derived from its origins as a prototype funded by the Defense Department's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), says Roger Hayes, president and CEO of Sierra Technical Services.

Several years ago, DOT&E recognized an emerging gap for a new target drone that could fly as a surrogate for fifth-generation fighters emerging in Russia and China such as the Sukhoi Su-57 and AVIC Chengdu J-20. In 2017, DOT&E awarded Sierra Technical Services a $15.9 million contract to develop the 5GAT prototype, Hayes said.

The pace of assembly has been dictated by the availability of parts cannibalized from other military aircraft, such as the engines and metallic components from the Northrop T-38 trainer and F-5 fighter, as well as aileron actuators from the Boeing F/A-18, Hayes said. Sierra Technical Services supplemented its revenue as assembly continued by working on other programs, including supplying components for the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie.

As development continued, the Air Force started to develop interest in a fifth-generation target. The service has awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to develop the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, which is being designed to counter the PL-15 missile fielded on China's J-20 fighter. The Air Force needs to test the AIM-260 and other missiles against a representative threat. Last May, the Air Force released a request for information for the Next Generation Aerial Target, which included a version that can replicate fifth-generation fighter attributes, such as a stealthy airframe with canted tails and serpentine inlet ducts.

The Air Force also is developing a concept to pair manned fighters such as the F-22 and F-35 with an unmanned partner, known sometimes as a Loyal Wingman. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) funded Kratos' XQ-58A, which completed a first flight in March.

AFRL also plans to demonstrate a UAS controlled by a “software brain” using artificial intelligence. This Skyborg program is sometimes considered a follow-on for the XQ-58A program, but Hayes said Sierra Technical Services could offer the 5GAT for the Skyborg contract.

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