Navy Seeks Feedback on UCLASS Program

Navy Seeks Feedback on UCLASS Program

The Navy is intensifying efforts to refine designs specs and select models and technologies for a next-generation carrier-based drone through the release of a draft Request for Proposal, service officials said.

The draft RFP was released April 17 to the four vendors currently under contract in a developmental effort with the Navy called preliminary design review, or PDR. The PDR is aimed at exploring design and configuration possibilities and supporting systems for the acquisition of the drone.

The Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program, or UCLASS, will serve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and precision strike missions.


Stealth designs and low-observable technologies have been part of the discussion regarding UCLASS requirements, however it is unclear if they are a formal part of the program – as much of the draft RFP and program details are not publically available, Navy officials said.

The purpose of the draft RFP, sent to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and General Atomics, is to solicit industry to design, develop, assemble, deliver, test and integrate the air segment into the UCLASS system, Navy officials said.

“The draft  RFP does not commit the government to any contract or expenditure of funds, but it allows the government to survey the market environment for potential bidders and to refine the final RFP before its release, which is planned for summer 2014,” said Jamie Cosgrove, a Navair spokeswoman.

By removing the need to base ISR assets on land in host countries near waters where the Navy will operate across the globe, carrier strike groups will have an organic, deployable ISR asset engineered to fly longer missions than most existing UAS are able.

“The system will consist of an air segment, a control system and connectivity segment, and a carrier segment, which will be developed in partnership with industry with the government acting as lead system integrator,” Cosgrove added.

UCLASS is believed to be of particular relevance for the Pentagon’s Pacific rebalance requiring the U.S. military to operate in the vast, geographically expansive waters; having a carrier based drone that removes the need to base ISR assets on land changes the equation regarding the reach and impact of carrier strike groups and Navy ships at sea.

One analyst said the Navy has been historically slower to embrace UAS technological advances.

“UCLASS is important in terms of developing more persistent ISR capability and it is an important step for the Navy as it works to develop its capabilities with UAS.  This program is a symbol of the way the Navy is now approaching UAS,” said Phillip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.

Given that the UCLASS program involves an ongoing competition among vendors, firms are reluctant to specify any detail regarding their respective offerings.  Nonetheless, there is a little bit of information and expert speculation available regarding the various firms potential offerings for the UCLASS competition.

Lockheed is offering a UAS said to incorporate cutting-edge air-vehicle technologies from the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter and RQ-170 Sentinel UAS, according to the firm’s website.  Developed by Lockheed’s so-called Skunk Works division, the Sea Ghost platform includes stealth technologies.

General Atomics is expected to offer its Sea Avenger, a maritime variant of its Predator C Avenger UAS.

“Sea Avenger is a maritime variant, meaning it will be engineered to be able to deal with arrested carrier landings,” Finnegan said.

Very little is available regarding Boeing’s offering for the competition, however there has been some public speculation that their submission could be based upon their Phantom Ray UAS; it is a 36-foot long stealthy looking UAS with a 50-foot wing span which was first introduced in 2010 and first flown in 2011.

The Phantom Ray is being developed for ISR, suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic attack and autonomous aerial refueling, a Boeing statement said.

Finnegan said Boeing is likely to look for ways to leverage its successful F-18 program as a way to lower costs and streamline production.

“Boeing will be looking to take advantage of its existing F-18 supply base which would provide them ready access to proven parts,” Finnegan said.

Northrop officials declined to offer any details regarding their formal offering for the UCLASS program competition, however many are familiar with the firm’s ongoing X-47B demonstrator program.

In fact, many observers expect Northrop to offer a variant of the X-47B, given its success in recent testing.

“We will continue to assess the UCLASS opportunity as details emerge,” a Northrop Grumman statement said.

The X-47B has successfully landed on an aircraft carrier several times as part of a Navy demonstration effort. This summer, the X-47B aircraft is slated for additional carrier trials, including night operations and integrating with manned operations such as an F-18, Northrop officials said.

“The X-47B is for the future of unmanned carrier aviation and a way of reducing risk for future technology,” Catlin O’Connor, Northrop spokeswoman.

Finnegan said the X-47B’s success in testing does not necessarily mean it will be chosen for the UCLASS effort.

“The X-47B is a proven system that has done very well, but it remains to be seen where the Navy will come down in terms of its interest in a less capable system which would be lower cost,” he added.

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Navy could drop F-35C and UCLASS and redirect funding toward developing an optionally manned long range CATOBAR fighter bomber FB-23, a lengthened derivative design of the Northrop / McDonnell Douglas prototype YF-23A, with design modifications to include use of GE’s F136 and avionics from F-35. And in the near term, buy more superbugs to fill the carrier fighter gap.

Navy also needs a new large fast CGN to provide air and missile defense for the CSGs, large enough to carry a large aperture variant of AMDR (much larger than a Tico or A-B can carry), with the speed and range equal or exceeding that of a CVN, with C2 capacity suitable for a CSG flagship. Without the AMD CGN, the CSG may be forced to operate further from enemy coastline, beyond the unrefueled combat radius of the aircraft carried on the CVN. If that happens Navy won’t be able to justify the cost of CVN, and they will follow the BBs out of active service and into the museums.

To avoid that slippery slope of decline in maritime power, Navy needs both the FB-23 and a new class of CGN.

Navy also needs to put more effort into developing asymmetric naval warfare capabilities, and an advanced encapsulated torpedo is asymmetric naval warfare at its finest. Seize the initiative and develop a much better CAPTOR to force the opponents into spending a lot more of their precious resources in countering the threat of US Navy smart-A2AD.

The modern carrier air wing is missing three very important components:

–A very long range CAP aircraft a.k.a. the F-14
–A very long endurance ASW and Sea Control aircraft a.k.a. the S-3
–A dedicated refueling aircraft

As it is, we simply have a wing full of F-18. As great as that a/c is and as much as it is loved, we still need those missing components. The F-18 cannot do any of these missing components so perhaps the UCLASS can be developed into two or more classes.

–A very long range CAP fighter UCLASS (directed by an F-18 mother)
–A very long range bomber and refueling UCLASS (directed by an F-18 mother)
–A very long range recon/surveillance UCLASS (directed by the carrier itself)

The USN needs a capability similar to the UCLASS. But wouldn’t a modified F-35 with very large wings do the trick for that.

Something similar to this variant of the FB-22 proposal: http://​notreally​.info/​t​r​a​n​s​p​o​r​t​/​p​l​a​n​e​s​/​n​g​b​/​f​b​-​22/

Stock fuselage+ very large wings + possibly stealthy weapon pods. Optionally manned. It would be mainly subsonic but it’s all it takes. No need to build a new production line.

Once the UCAV software is developped all the F-35s in service could be upgraded and become optionnally manned. The F-35 could even become almost completely unmanned in the long term, which would lead to huge savings in operational costs.

Reference the statement: “By removing the need to base ISR assets on land in host countries near waters where the Navy will operate across the globe, carrier strike groups will have an organic, deployable ISR asset engineered to fly longer missions than most existing UAS are able.”

According to the NAVAIR Fact Sheet, the MQ-4A TRITON is being fielded to meet the Navy’s persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements. The Navy is investing $13.2 billion for 70 MQ-4A Tritons, that have 30 hours of endurance, air speed 310 KTS, ceiling 60,000 ft, an unrefueled range of 9,950 nm, and a very sophisticated ISR sensor suite. What is the fleet ISR requirement not met by MQ-4A TRITON that justifies this new $3.7 billion dollar plus acquisition?

To quote Winson Churchill: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we must think.”

that justifies the investment in UCLASS?

One might conclude that the organic carrier based ISR requirement reflects either an institutional distrust of the land-based MPRF; or, a requirement conjured up to justify the development and acquisition of a carrier– based unmanned aerial system that can evolve for missions that make sense such as aerial refueling, ISR and targeting in contested airspace, and strike.
The Navy is acquiring appoximately 117 P-8 Poseidon aircraft and 68 MQ-4C TRITON systems to satisfy fleet maritime ISR requirements.

Any new weapon system i think will be daunting task to impliment. IRS is pretty straight forward job, i would hope the platform they finally settle with can handle tasks. I’ve not seen a lot of upcoming units with mutli-mission capacities being able to do any-one job well unless it was mission specific design. Sea Avenger UCLASS maybe inititally be able handle the task, but i think it will be like the F/A-18 when it came online originally. Not as good as what it replaced, still can do something good.

Consolitation of platforms into a few multiple-purpose platforms will keep doing this. I just hope the UCLASS design they settle with is going be able handle the task, i don’t have much faith in unmanned vehicles to do something that has someone on the scene and handling situation there. AI or not.

You’re right. UCLASS represents a capability in search of a requirement. Not an ideal way to run the acquisition ‘railroad’. They’re trying to keep it alive with low cost promises. Then after billions have been sunk into the design effort, and cost reality rears its ugly head, they’ll say “We’ve sunk too much money into the program to stop it now, let’s keep spending money until we get something that the fleet can use.” Meanwhile, all the flags and SES who ensured its survival have retired and begin working for the contractor as vice president of customer relations or some such nonsense. This is how the system works.

Nick, Nick, Nick. “Unmanned” aircraft are not actually unmanned. Just because there isn’t a pilot sitting in the airplane doesn’t mean that there isn’t somebody controlling it from a remote location. You still need aircrew and you still need maintenance personnel, and these folks still need their admin/squadron personnel. These people all need to be trained initially, and then the pilots must maintain their proficiency. There’s really no huge operational cost savings associated with unmanned aircraft vs manned aircraft.

That being said, given the expected low survivability rate of the F-35 when flown into an integrated air defense, maybe it would be best if all F-35 variants were converted to an unmanned aircraft for the safety of the pilots.

Apart from reconnaissance the Navy doesn’t need more drones. We need to have a real fleet defender fighter and work on a real successor to the F-18 not this pitiful F-35C. This is a waste of money and resources.

The official FB-23 concept was a BIG aircraft, probably even larger than the old A-5 Vigilante or A-3 Skywarrior and easily at the upper scale of what can be regularly operated off a carrier. While I love that design it probably wouldn’t work well for the Navy.

The YF-23 supposedly had great low speed handling but for whatever reasons Northrop’s official “NATF-23″ design was a very different (and uglier) aircraft with canards, the wing moved back, and a revised tail configuration.

The Navy has a fleet defender in Aegis and SM-2/3. Surface-based air defense coupled with airborne early warning can solve any gaps in fleet AAW that may have come from the sunset of the Tomcat. The Navy needs a long-range strike asset that will significantly increase an adversary’s targeting problem in an A2/AD environment.

This drives me nuts. What makes many current UAVs cheap to operate has nothing to do with manned vs unmanned. The current generation of UAVs are cheap to operate because they are small. A small single engine turboprop is cheap to operate (shock). A 40lb UAV powered by a chainsaw engine is cheap to operate. A 30,000lb LO jet is not going to be cheap to operate. A single engine turboprop like the T-6 or Supertucano is cheaper to operate than an MQ-9, can go anywhere and doesn’t need a team of technicians and a satelite link.

You are right, but also consider… A fast long range aircraft that carries an adequately large internal load of bombs and/or missiles in addition to the big engines and big fuel tanks is going to be a rather large aircraft. The A-5 and A-3 were large, but so is the Navy’s COD aircraft, Grumman C-2A Greyhound. The C-2A has a wingspan in excess of 80 feet, wider than the A-5 and A-3 (but not as long). Likeswise the C-2’s sibling, the E-2 Hawkeye.

William_C1, does the appearance of EMALS on new carriers enlarge the size and weight of carrier-compatible aircraft enough to make a descendant of the YF-23 plausible for carrier operation? By the time such an aircraft is available there will be a few EMALS fitted carriers in operation even if no older carriers are ever retrofitted with it.

Big Dean, would letting an E-3 command A/A missiles carried to altitude by a UAV sitting on the likeliest threat axis do something useful for fleet defense?

A program in search of a requirement … only if you assume that you’ll always have a secure base from which to operate P-8s and Tritons, neither of which programs appear to be particularly survivable in contested airspace.

The Navy shouldn’t use Aircraft Carriers to host drones for there to many people incidents without the cross contamination of Drones. Destroyers, Battleships, and C-130 would be a better choice, for Helicopter Decks have precise REP times.

The “FB-23″ concept JRT referred to is a much larger (and thus heavier) derivative of the standard F-23 design. The size of the “normal” F-23 shouldn’t be a problem however. Theoretically you may be able to get more power out of the EMALS catapult, but that also means more stress on the aircraft and the conditions for landing won’t change.

I’m not sure how easy or difficult it would be to adapt the standard F-23 design for carrier use. For whatever reasons Northrop’s NATF proposal was very different from their ATF (F-23) design. The same was true with Lockheed. Yet the requirements for the NATF were different from the ATF in more areas than enabling carrier operations. Some of the design changes are likely related to those other requirements. I simply don’t have the knowledge to say if such an extensive redesign as seen in the NATF concepts would be necessary or not.

Where you save is in training. You don’t need to train a pilot in the UAV, so it doesn’t need to fly much in peace time.

In the case of an optionally manned UAV, the pilot gives the plane more capabilities for certain missions. And in the case of an F-35 optionnally piloted UCAV, any F-35 pilot can be trained to pilot this version with a minimum of extra training, as it has the same systems, cockpit, etc. All the more that the F-35 is very easy to fly to begin with and every pilot input is controlled by the computer.

Like I said in my post below, you save due to the fact that the plane doesn’t have to fly as much in peace time.

Also UCAVs will become more and more autonomous in the future. For most missions they won’t even need to be piloted remotely. In fact the AI controlling the plane may well become superior to a pilot in some scenarios.

That’s why you see proposals for 6th gen fighters with the ability to be optionnally piloted. There is no need to wait for the next generation for that, the F-35 can be upgraded progressively over 20 years or so, which is only 1/3 of the duration of the F-35 service time.

The F-35 already has the advanced sensor fusion, so what you need is a layer of AI on top of that to exploit it. Btw from what I’ve heard LM does a lot of research in AI. And the country which develops the best AI in the future will have a big advantage on potential adverseries. These AIs will find their way in most weapon systems.

Moreover if the plane flies significantly less its service life is lengthened, no need to pay for SLEPs.

2 Words — Modern Frigate

What heck does that have to do with anything? Were talking about aircraft, not ocean escort / small naval platforms. Focus here is what they should do with the new UCASS Drones their bring in. Their Conventional Short-Take off Aircraft, not Fire Scouts.

Do you get the sneaky suspicion that the F-35 will turn into another F-111 Aardvark ?

Not at all. This variant is not meant to be a fighter. Although it could probably be used for the close defense of the carrier to shoot down missiles either with its own AMRAAMs or by guiding SAMs coming from the ships.

And if you know anything about COD operations, you know that they rarely stay aboard the carrier for more than a few hours, they generally operate out of airfields in theater and shuttle to and from the CVN so, while it is a carrier capable aircraft, it is not generally stored and maintained onboard whereas the UCLASS will need to be fully integrated into the CV airwing.

Wow, you drank the coolaid. Aegis is a highly capable platform, but has it’s limits. It is far from foolproff, limited to radar horizon and makes a nice target for ARMs and can only be at one place at a time. Cruisers are part of the puzzle but they are not the whole thing.

The Air-Sea Battle concept addresses the problem that adversary capabilities to deny access and areas to U.S. forces are becoming increasingly advanced causing U.S. forces to operate with higher levels of risk and at greater distance from areas of interest. As the Navy faces the prospect of a credible adversary with space and airborne ISR capabilities, does it make sense to field a UCLASS system that requires the carrier to radiate an RF data link for vehicle, sensor, and weapon control that can be exploited by the adversary to detect, locate and target the carrier? Does the Navy plan to field capabilities dependent on RF communications making EMCON ALPHA no longer a viable tactic?

All true. However, if PLA/PLAN A2AD systems push CSG operation further from PRC’s coastline, the CVN will need aircraft with longer range. Add adequate internal capacity for bombs and missiles and the aircraft is necessarily large. Each would take up more space on the flight deck. I see it as necessary to keep the CVN and its CSG relevant against a peer level adversary.

My statement is in direct response to several posts lamenting that the Navy “needs” (and thus must spend its dollars on) a new fleet defense fighter. I disagree. The Navy needs UCLASS as a long range, relatively low RCS, autonomous strike platform.

Kook-aid or not, the fact remains that Aegis is the primary fleet defense system, and when coupled with airborne early warning and current air wing fighters, you have a pretty effective air defense capability. I never said it was invincible, and I acknowledge the weaknesses you’ve identified.

A significant portion of the increased weight of a larger longer range CATOBAR fighter bomber would be the larger fuel load. With a recovery tanker orbiting near the CVN, the tanker can take excess fuel from returning fighter bomber before that fighter bomber is recovered to the flight deck. And similarly, the catapult (regardless if EMALS or steam) assists takeoff of a fighter bomber heavy on bombs and/or missiles and light on fuel, and then the fighter bomber takes fuel from the tanker before proceeding on the mission.

We already have a solution for long range naval operations: air-to-air refueling.

Except that the US does not have an acceptable air to air refueling capability within the CV airwing at this time. F/A-18 Buddy Stores are not enough to fully support one F/A-18 for a mission and it takes out on F/A-18 asset from the mossion for each aircraft fueled. A non-F-18 tanker solution is needed within the airwing.

A Super Hornet with 4 drops and a buddy store (“5 wet”) has almost 29K pounds of fuel. Considering a typical combat loaded aircraft will burn about 3K during launch and climb-out, a Super Hornet tanker can top off 4–5 aircraft, recover in the same cycle, and have about 5K crossing the ramp. The penalty comes in the increased fatigue life expenditure on the airframe from the heavy cat launches. The same problem affected the A-6/KA-6.

The S-3 was nice because it seemed to make gas while flying, and always seemed to have enough give even after a full cycle airborne. The Super Hornet is certainly acceptable, though

Nothing beats an Air Force tanker. But they have trouble landing on the boat.

Maybe a better question would be, why do you think the Navy should have an air-to-air refueling capability on ship? What would be an acceptable air to air refueler on the CV?

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