Northrop's new combat drone looks like a winner

Motley Fool:
Northrop Grumman's (NYSE:NOC) TERN drone for the Navy could be an even bigger deal than we initially thought.

One year ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) tapped Northrop Grumman to build it a TERN prototype, capable of launching from and landing on small naval warships. Just six months later, before TERN had even conducted its first test flight, DARPA decided it liked the new drone so much that it "doubled down" and ordered Northrop to go ahead and build it a second test vehicle.

Already, we're beginning to see why.

This is how DARPA describes TERN: "The Tern Phase 3 design is a tailsitting, flying-wing aircraft with a twin contra-rotating, nose-mounted propulsion system. The aircraft would lift off like a helicopter and then perform a transition maneuver to orient it for wing-borne flight for the duration of a mission. Upon mission completion, the aircraft would return to base, transition back to a vertical orientation, and land." (To help visualize all of that, check out the concept photo above.)

Additionally, we have learned that TERN is going to be big enough to carry 600 pounds of ordnance -- which is surprising. While TERN's name derives from the descriptor "Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node," this drone is being designed from day 1 to conduct combat strikes. And here's perhaps the most surprising statistic: As reported by last week, TERN will be capable of carrying out "light strike" missions at ranges "beyond 600 nautical miles" from base.

Here's why this is important: The Navy's current workhorse of naval strike missions is Boeing's (NYSE:BA) F/A-18 Super Hornet. In his groundbreaking 2015 paper, "Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation," Captain Henry (Jerry) Hendrix (U.S. Navy, retired) notes that the current version of the F/A-18 boasts a strike range of "just beyond 500 nautical miles on internal fuel."Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) newer F-35C stealth fighter, slated for deployment in 2021, is expected to boast "an effective combat radius around 550 nm, exceeding the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet aircraft by 50 nautical miles."

At the risk of stating the obvious, both those ranges appear to be inferior to the 600-nautical-mile range given for Northrop's TERN. Admittedly, it's probably premature to give TERN full credit for that range, given that the bird hasn't even been built yet. But just the possibility that Northrop's drone might outclass the proven range of fighter jets from both Boeing and Lockheed Martin deserves consideration.
It appears to be a VTOL like the Navy experimented with in the 1950's.  The Buzz Sawyer comic strip in the paper showed Buzz using a VTOL with dual rotors but a much smaller wing spread that that of the TERN.

I am not sure how important the range figure is in comparison to the manned aircraft that can refuel in the air if needed.


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