Pentagon Reviews UCLASS Strike Capabilities

Pentagon Reviews UCLASS Strike Capabilities

Congressional leaders have asked the defense secretary to review existing plans for the Navy’s carrier-launched drone program, expressing concerns that the written requirements are too narrowly configured and do not meet the threats and mission demands of the future.

As a result, the Defense Department’s Joint Requirement Oversight Council has launched a review of the program ahead of the Navy’s planned release of its Request for Proposals to industry.

The Navy plans to have the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone operational by 2020 and able to serve for decades to come.  Navy leaders expect UCLASS to fly long endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and strike missions.


However, lawmakers, analysts and even some members of the Navy have expressed concern that the program’s requirements focus disproportionately ISR missions and not enough on survivability and weapons capabilities.

The House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee mark-up language of the 2015 defense bill states that the Pentagon needs to rethink UCLASS requirements.

“The committee believes the Navy needs a long-range, survivable unmanned ISR-strike aircraft as an integral part of our carrier air wings as soon as possible. However, investing in a program today that does not adequately address the threat will only delay, and could preclude, investment in and fielding of the right system later,” the language states.

The mark-up requires the Secretary of Defense to examine UCLASS requirements and report his findings to the House defense committees by December 2014. In particular, the Congressional subcommittee maintains the current requirements will leave the platform ill-equipped for future threats and challenges.

In particular, low-observable or stealth specifications are needed to help the UCLASS evade increasingly sophisticated enemy air defenses and a broadly scoped payload or weapons delivery capability is needed to maximize its effectiveness for future engagements, lawmakers have said.. The UCLASS drone will need to overcome what the Pentagon refers to as anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD threats, meaning adversaries with increasingly sophisticated long-range missiles and air defenses, among other things.

“What you will have done is take enormous capability off the table if you go with the requirements that they are locking in now. What you will be locking into is something that is a little more than a high-class surveillance vehicle that will fly over our aircraft carriers for 20 to 30 years down the road. Many people feel we need to have something that is more integrated into the air wing if we are going to keep our carriers viable and if we are going to get through A2/AD defenses,” Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, told Military​.com in an interview.

The Subcommittee language, which was adopted by the entire House and awaits conference with the Senate, specifies that the UCLASS will need to be able to operate in high-threat or “contested” environment.

The thrust of the debate centers around the platform can adapt over time or whether features like stealth and electronic attack need to be engineered into the original design at from the start. Forbes wants those capabilities from the beginning even though it will increase the drone’s initial price tag.

“These requirements will lock in payloads and other types of things, including potential stealth that you will never be able to go back and revisit,” Forbes added.

Navy officials said they could not comment on the proposed mark-up language, indicating they plan to wait for the results of the Congressional conference later this year, which will determine the final language of the defense bill.

Focusing more narrowly on ISR missions for the Navy restricts the technological ability of the platform and creates some redundancies as well, the Subcommittee states.

“The disproportionate emphasis in the requirements on unrefueled endurance to enable continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to the carrier strike group, a capability need presumably satisfied by the planned acquisition of 68 MQ-4C Tritons, would result in an aircraft with serious deficiencies in both survivability and internal weapons payload capacity and flexibility,” the language states.

While not willing to comment publically on plans for stealth or low-observability for UCLASS, Navy program officials have consistently maintained that the program’s requirements do call for a weaponized strike platform as well as an ISR vehicle.  However, the weapons capability is something that is described as incremental, meaning it will be engineered into the platform over time, Navy officials explained.

Last summer, the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million for preliminary design review for the UCLASS to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

The final Request For Proposal, which will be open to all vendors and competitors able to a produce a design that meets requirements for UCLASS, is expected later this month, Navy officials said.

Some vendors, such as Boeing, plan to propose a lower-cost platform which incrementally can achieve low-observable signatures through modular changes over time, according to a report in Aviation Week.

Lockheed and Northrop both plan to offer designs which have been engineered from the beginning as stealthy or low-observable.

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They need something X-47B-ish to restore what was lost when they retired the A-6s. Not some carrier-capable Predator C.

US Navy needs an optionally manned, twin engine, fast, stealthy, long range, CATOBAR fighter bomber.

F-35C most certainly is not that, and it seems UCLASS also won’t be that.

I love it but the F/A-XX It seems to be too much of a leap forward to be efficiently manufacturable. And once again it got all the attribute of a silver bullet.

I would rather look for a fighter jet with these capability, in order of importance:
– Two seat
– Long range
– Two engine
– Stealth
– ~ Mach 2.0 capable

Not that I suggest that stealth is useless, but without capability it really is. Two seat because computers will never replace a humain brain. In that case it mean a lot of flexibility like to have a dedicated pilot managing a number of UCAV around its wing. It also mean the possibility for full blown EW.

I suggest to add a third X and to classify it as porn. Good and inspiring but it remain porn. Mine too to some extend.

“Some vendors, such as Boeing, plan to propose a lower-cost platform which incrementally can achieve low-observable signatures through modular changes”

Wait, the customer wants what?

Stall! Stall! Blow smoke! Buy time!

The navy’s requirements are in line with all the services and contractors future thinking.

Its driven by two realities — The contractors need to deliver a lot less bang for the buck. and secondly the pentagon doesn’t think it can win a war anymore.

The F-35 and LCS are the first of a new breed of underperformed platforms that will dominate US procurement for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t matter that these programs are no where near internationally competitive because foreign sales are dwindling anyways and there is a far better payoff delivering rubbish to the US government where the process is free of any competitive pressures.
Some companies will do with pie in the sky designs that never deliver and are canceled — and they will profit. But the main contractors need to lock in 30 year revenue streams while delivering less and less every year. This is very possible with the monopoly situation we have.

The US military has a history of under-performing even before the second world war. But its record since is practically victory free. With two successive failures in Iraq and Afghanistan under it’s belt its finally taking this to heart. The Marines now train for missions like landing in Syria being surrounded and cut off for a month and being rescued by a UN resolution. I’m hard pressed for any other military that has ever trained for defeat.

The two come together — if you can never fight because you cant win why do you need high performance platforms — wont second rate and bad ideas like the V-22 be good enough ?

Great. Lets buy a few hundred X-47Bs. Remind me, what weapons does it carry How many tons of bombs? What targeting/Fire control radars does it have?

A lot of people are in love with the shape and speed of the X-47 but it is a proof of concept aircraft and the combat capabilites have not even been started yet.

We have no significant carrier based UAV capability today. The first planes to fly off of carriers were not the best strike aircraft available. Congress should let the Navy field a UAV as fast as possible with limited capabilities vs. expanding the requirement to invent technology we don’t have today. (Despite what the technophiles say we haven’t perfected the technology to create UAVs that can penetrate modern defenses and fight.)

Congress can always control an over emphasis on a lower capability UCLASS with funding and limiting the numbers but sending the whole program back to the drawing board pushes back the delivery date, increases technical risk and robs the Navy of developing experience and a better vision of how UAVs can fit into the fleet air arm.

“Some vendors, such as Boeing, plan to propose a lower-cost platform which incrementally can achieve low-observable signatures through modular changes over time…”

“Lockheed and Northrop both plan to offer designs which have been engineered from the beginning as stealthy or low-observable.”

The Boeing approach makes the most sense to me. If these drones are going to be flying for decades, doesn’t it make sense to build adaptability into the design? The NG and LockMart plan assumes that stealth designs of today will work for the lifetime of the aircraft. Not a great plan. What would be even better, is if the stealth profile can be altered in the field to best address the current threat environment. Plus, if Boeing is correct, the up-front price will be less.

Dont need drones. We need real planes not JSF either which DoD brass is never talking about. Sad

When the majority of stealth comes from shaping how can you hope to incrementally improve it short of extensive redesign?

Yes! Let’s build a drone that can do everything, not just one thing well.

Open up those requirements, wide open! The way the defense contractor loves it.

It will be the F-35 of the drone program…

There isn’t going to be money for an F/A-XX for a long time, if ever. That being so, a reasonably stealthy UAV that is multi-mission sounds like a good idea. We don’t really know what the F-35 will turn out to be, but it’s still going to be a short-legged aircraft. Something stealthy and longer-legged sounds reasonable.

To the extent that the Navy’s priority is ISR, I infer that the Navy is desperate to extend the defensive perimiter of the CAG.

Same internal weapons & payload of the F-35s. Also, it isn’t a fighter/striker, just a striker, so the point of fire control radars is moot. The size, shape, & speed of the X-47 are kind of it strong points, which is why people like it. *EVERY* aircraft is proof of concept until it goes into actual combat, that is a ridiculous reason to say something should be developed.

Some possibilities:
— Swappable wings: this has been done on some unmanned X-planes to use a common core to test multiple wing designs. One wing set could be optimized for stealth over performance, while another could be optimized for speed or maneuverability
– Replaceable body panel or fairings: Similar to the swappable wings. But the panels could also include sensors or weapons bays. Instead of just hanging stuff off the fuselage or wings, they could be packaged as replaceable body panels.

Just some ideas.

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