The U.S. Navy is working on a radar-evading, armed, jet-propelled, highly autonomous drone warplane able to take off of and land on the pitching deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier as early as 2018.

Known by the ungainly moniker UCLASS — that stands for “Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike — the new drone will be the first pilotless warplane with the same bombing abilities as today’s manned jet fighters.

It’ll be stealthy. It’ll carry lots of sensors and ordnance over long distance. It’ll be expensive. That much we knew. What we didn’t know until late last week was just how much stuff it will carry, how far and against what level of enemy defenses. We also had no idea how much the Navy expected to pay for the drone.

Now we do know, thanks to an internal Navy document obtained by the U.S. Naval Institute’s news blog. The requirements document lays out what are called “key performance parameters” that the UCLASS drone is supposed to meet.

For starters, UCLASS will be deployed aboard the Navy’s flattops in groups called “orbits.” By Air Force standards, a drone orbit includes three or four aircraft plus the control station and 100 or more human operators. The Navy expects each orbit to cost $150 million, according to the leaked document.

That works out to between $37 million and $50 million per drone — slightly less than the Navy’s current F/A-18E/F Super Hornet manned fighter and cheaper by far than the $200-million F-35C Joint Strike Fighter still in development for the sailing branch.

The new killer drone must be able to fly 2,000 miles without in-air refueling in a “lightly contested” environment — that is, against modest enemy defenses — and destroy a target on land or sea using two 500-pound GPS-guided bombs.

By comparison, the Super Hornet can carry 4,000 pounds worth of bombs plus self-defense missiles only 500 miles without refueling, but is able to fight its way through heavily contested air space. The F-35C also carries two tons of weapons plus missiles but can fly 600 miles on internal fuel and through heavy defenses.

In short, the UCLASS will more than triple the striking range of the carrier more cheaply than current planes — although with fewer bombs and with less ability to survive against a determined foe.

Plus the new killer drone will be designed to loiter, in contrast to manned planes whose pilots wear out after only a few hours’ flying. UCLASS will be able to throttle back and slowly orbit at altitude, keeping watch for enemy forces for at least 12 hours at a time before refueling either back at the ship or from an aerial tanker.

The Maryland-based USNI’s summary of the leaked document implies that a single orbit of three to four UCLASS robots will be able to keep one drone on station 1,200 miles from the carrier, or two at 600 miles. The extra two or three aircraft will presumably be in maintenance or going to or from the patrol station.

The drone demonstrator’s first carrier launch in May. Navy photo

The new drone’s range and persistence are big, big deals to the Navy, which counts on its 10 carriers to do the bulk of the fighting in wartime. Since World War II, Navy flattops have seen generation after generation of new carrier-based fighter planes come and go, culminating in today’s Super Hornets and tomorrow’s Joint Strike Fighters.

Technology has changed but one thing has not. “The typical unrefueled combat reach of U.S. carrier aircraft has seldom exceeded 600 nautical miles,” according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a respected Washington, D.C. think tank. While faster, a Super Hornet flies little farther than a World War II dive bomber.

That’s a problem because China and other countries now possess anti-ship missiles that can strike farther than 600 miles, putting the carriers at a disadvantage. The UCLASS robot will alter a tactical calculation that hasn’t budged in America’s favor for more than 70 years.

But the drone’s performance as laid out in the leaked document could change. The F-35, for one, has seen its own performance specs steadily downgraded as it struggles through development and testing. The same could happen to UCLASS, which at present exists only as an experimental demonstrator built by Northrop Grumman that launched from a carrier deck for the first time in May.

Candidates for the full-fledged, sea-based killer drone remain a collection of blueprints and prototypes in the hands of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, all of which will be vying for the development contract some time in 2014.

But if all goes well, in just five years or so the Navy will have a new drone warplane — one that can kick 1,000 pounds of ass 2,000 miles away … and potentially change naval warfare forever.

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