One of the unexpected surprises of the 2006 Farnborough Show was the decision by Lockheed Martin to unveil their P-175 Polecat UAV. The Polecat is a tailless, high-altitude demonstration vehicle which was designed and built in just 18 months, commencing in March 2003 using USD27 million of Lockheed Martin funding, however the UAV did not actually fly until 2005. According to Lockheed Martin the Polecat was built to test a range of new technologies critical to what the company foresees as a ‘third generation’ of unmanned platforms. Initial flight trials have already taken place and sometime in 2006 further trails will be conducted with various sensors installed, presumably from Groom Lake.
The key design feature of the Polecat is the 27.4 meter (90ft) span advanced laminar flow wing, roughly the same as the Bombardier DHC-8 Dash 8 regional airliner, which gives the design great aerodynamic efficiency and a very low observable cross section. As the Polecat is simply a demonstration vehicle, the wing has been designed for low observability, but has not been treated with any other low observability features, such as special paint of RAM, even so, a blended wing design like this would be extremely difficult to detect on radar. Powered by two Williams FJ44-3E turbofans producing a combined thrust of 6,000lb, the Polecat has a gross weight of 4,080kg (9,000lbs) and can carry a payload of 455kg (1,000lbs). The Polecat is designed to operate between 60,000 to 65,000ft, above the altitude where contrails form, and will also be fitted with a contrail suppression system to eliminate any contrails that might form when the UAV is operating at lower altitudes because of cloud cover.
Needless to say a lot of questions about the Polecat remain unanswered. For one, the agreement of a ‘customer’ had to be sought before the Polecat was unveiled, but exactly who is that ‘customer’? Presumably it’s the US Air Force, but perhaps the CIA is looking a acquiring a strategic surveillance and reconnaissance UAV? Certainly the details released of the size, weight and performance of the Polecat suggest that a production version would be capable of mission anywhere between 18-24 hours. Secondly, could this vehicle be the ‘Son of Darkstar’? I think the easy answer here is simply no. It’s clear that a much larger version of the Darkstar was developed in a ‘black’ programme after the project was officially cancelled and has since been spotted by high-flying U-2 pilots orbiting above their aircraft in various trouble spots around the world. Therefore, if Lockheed Martin are to be believed, the Polecat was designed long after the ‘Son of Darkstar’ was actually in operational service and although it may have drawn on some of the systems used in the earlier design, they are two completely separate UAV’s and the ‘Son of Darkstar’ has still to be revealed.
It’s unusual for Lockheed Martin to release details of a ‘black’ programme this quickly, so they almost certainly have an ulterior motive. For a number of years now General Atomics with the Predator family, Northrop with the Global Hawk and Boeing with their experimental Bird of Prey have appeared to have a significant advantage over Lockheed Martin in the design and development of UAVs. However, Lockheed’s recent involvement in UAV development has largely taken in ‘black’ projects and publicly unveiling the Polecat is a means of redressing the industrial balance by demonstrating to those in Washington that Lockheed are still at the very front of current UAV technology. In particular, by quickly designing and flying the Polecat within a tight budget Lockheed Martin now have an insight into three areas critical to the design of the next generation of UAVs: reducing the manufacturing costs of large composite airframe designs, lowering the capital cost of manufacture by using advanced tooling techniques and integrating a fully autonomous flight control and mission handling system that requires no human intervention.
Another factor that will almost certainly have influenced Lockheed Martin’s decision to develop the Polecat is the USAF’s search for a long-range manned or unmanned strike aircraft to enter service around 2018. Now that the USAF have decided to terminate much of their involvement in the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS), almost certainly because of pressure from the ‘pilot mafia’ at the top of the food chain in USAF, they are hoping that emerging technologies will make a manned system more suitable than an unmanned system – time will tell, but I suspect that as technology improves, the arguments for having an unmanned system will only become more compelling. Certainly one option Lockheed will offer to the USAF will be a subsonic UAV, almost certainly derived from the lessons they have learnt from building the Polecat.
In March 2007 Lockheed announced that the only example of the P-175 Polecat had crashed and been destroyed on 18 December 2006 whilst operating over the Nellis Test Range in Nevada. The UAV was on its third test flight and flying normally “when a failure in the flight termination ground equipment caused the aircraft’s automatic fail-safe flight termination mode to activate, irreversibly terminating the flight. The fail-safe mode, as required by range safety for missiles and unmanned systems, is designed to terminate the flight of an uncontrolled air system to ensure that it does not deviate from the range.” according to an air force statement. The delay in announcing the loss of the Polecast was caused by the length of the investigation into the causes, as well as the classified sensitivities surrounding the aircraft and the base from which it operated – Groom Lake, Nevada, otherwise known as Area 51.
It remains to be seen whether Lockheed will build a replacement Polecat – it may well be unnecessary as Lockheed have demonstrated their capability to rapidly design, build and fly a large, stealthy UAV, using many off-the-shelf components, putting them firmly back in the market with Boeing and Northrop Grumman for any UAV contract that evolves from the USAF’s Future Long-Range Strike programme. Of course there is another possibility – that the crash never happened and that this is just a ploy to move the entire P-175 programme into a follow-on black programme, well away from the public gaze. Only time will tell the truth behind the air force statement and whether in fact the P-175 Polecat continues to fly in a programme designed to support or supplement the very stealthy ‘Son of Darkstar’ UAV.