Four U.S. companies get funds for more work on unmanned plane

Four U.S. weapons makers each received $15 million in funding on Wednesday for continued work on a new unmanned combat plane for use on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, the Pentagon announced.

Lockheed Martin Corp , Boeing Co , Northrop Grumman Corp and privately-held General Atomics each received a contract valued at $15 million to fund a preliminary review assessment of their designs for a new type of drone to be used for surveillance and possible strikes.

The Navy is in the early stages of developing a new Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft that will be used to augment manned fighter aircraft on U.S. carriers.

Work on the four new contracts runs through June 2014.

Northrop designed and built two unmanned bat-wing jets called the X-47B for the Navy as part of an earlier and separate competition. One of the jets took off from and landed on an aircraft carrier off the Virginia coast earlier this summer.

Navy officials carefully went through the requirements for the follow-on UCLASS program earlier this year to ensure that the program would be affordable, officials told an industry conference earlier this week.

They said they expected the new unmanned drones to augment manned fighter jets on aircraft carriers, carrying out surveillance at night and other missions to complement the work done by manned aircraft.

But they said overall funding for unmanned programs was down sharply from peaks reached in 2011, and mandatory Pentagon budget cuts would continue to pose a challenge to unmanned programs for some time.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Carol Bishopric)