As a part of the U.S. Air Force’ annual Air, Space, and Cyber conference, held digitally this year due to pandemic restrictions, some of America’s most storied aerospace companies revealed concept art for their stealthy drone bids.
Northrop Grumman’s bid, the same company that manufactured the revolutionary B-2 Sprit strategic stealth bomber, appears similar to their X-47B, an unmanned aerial vehicle prototype the company developed and tested in the mid- to late-2010s. Both appear to have a single engine buried in the airframe’s centerline, with a gentle but noticeable “hump” just in front of the engine air intake that could be used to hide the engine fan blades from radar.
The image the company used didn’t reveal a lot, but it seems that Northrop Grumman may try to take a page from the B-2 Spirt’s playbook. Their bid, tentatively called the SG-2 Vision, looks like a flying wing design—a design that Northrop Grumman is very familiar with.
General Atomics—the granddaddy of drone designers—hopes to continue the success of their hugely successful drone program. The company designed the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and MQ-9 Reaper. Despite the company’s past success, none of their platforms are stealthy and they’re not new either. The Reaper design is also two decades old.
Like Northrop Grumman, GA also released a bit of artwork that could reveal something pretty special. Their flying-wing design seems to have a pair of teardrop-shaped air intakes. In an interview with Aviation Week, the company President hinted at what makes their Reaper-replacement so special. “We’re embracing ultra-long endurance to keep our next-generation ISR/Strike UAS in the fight for longer periods than many ever imagined possible,” he explained.
Although no visuals were provided by Boeing, the aerospace company would likely want to compete as well by building on the success of their MQ-25 Stingray drone. The Stingray, an aerial refueling tanker, is not completely stealthy, as it has a tail assembly rather than being a purer flying wing design. Still, the Stingray does have a stealthily-contoured body and there is almost certainly room for stealth improvement.
Both Lockheed Martin and Kratos are also keen to design and build a replacement. Like the other entries, Lockheed’s design, though very tentative, is also a flying wing. Though it is much too early to know for certain what the United States’ Reaper replacement will look like, one thing is for sure—it will be stealthy.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.