Rise of the Pheonix: Pentagon’s 5GAT stealth drone is back

After a short hiatus, the Pentagon has revived the previously mothballed 5GAT stealth target drone project with a multi-million dollar cash injection.
Christopher McFadden
3D rendering of the original 5GAT drone.

Sierra Technical Services 

The United States Department of Defence (DoD) has, Aviation Week reports, revived its mothballed Fifth Generation Aerial Target (5GAT) program. Discontinued in 2020 following a prototype's crash during its first flight, the program aims to approximate a Chinese J-20 fighter for US asset testing. The 5GAT program has received a new cash injection of $77 million, with Advanced Technology International winning the contract.

Back from the dead

The first failed 5GAT was built by California-based Sierra Technical Services (STS) and met “all ground test objectives” before testing. However, a software error caused the prototype to crash on its October 1 23, 2020, flight. The program was then mothballed until further notice.

In 2021, the Test and Resources Management Center (TRMC) took over the 5GAT program from the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). The TRMC then released a solicitation for bids to find an inexpensive, advanced aerial target to evaluate a new generation of fighters, air-to-air weapons, and targeting sensors through a US Army contracting office in April 2022.

“The goal for the program is to obtain ‘game-changing,’ revolutionary high-risk/high-reward advancements that propel the ability to perform [the military’s test and evaluation] activities, thus mitigating the time frames of associated military capability obsolescence,” the TRMC said in a contract award announcement.

“Due to the increased cost and lifespan of the latest, fifth generation of fighter aircraft, there are no retired airframes available that adequately represent the characteristics of fifth-generation threats. Key amongst these characteristics is size, signature, and electronic attack payloads,” the announcement explains. 

The Department of Testing and Evaluation (DOT&E) started evaluating designs for a 5GAT in 2006. The DOT&E worked with experts, including retired Lockheed Martin Skunk Works engineers, to produce a concept design. By 2015, the DOT&E had spent $11 million to move the program forward. Two years later, STS received a $36.7 million contract to build and fly the first two prototypes.

The resulting aircraft design aims to have a low radar signature to evaluate new technologies against stealthy aerial threats effectively. Major systems, including GE Aerospace J85 engines, are harvested from retired aircraft like the Northrop T-38 Talon to reduce costs.

Production to follow

"Upon successful completion of this prototype effort, the Government anticipates that a follow-on production effort may be awarded via either contract or transaction, without competitive procedures if the participants in this transaction complete the prototype project as awarded. Successful completion will occur when the prototypes have been validated and are accepted by the Government. Further, the Government reserves the right to determine part or all of the prototype project is successfully completed if the vendor shows a particularly favorable or unexpected result justifying the transition to production," explains the announcement.

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