UPDATE: Pentagon Delays Navy’s Carrier Drone Program
CORRECTION: The Defense Acquisition Board did not meet and decide upon this delay as an earlier version of this article stated. An earlier version also incorrectly stated that Navy officials are considering drafting a new, joint capabilities document for the UCLASS.
The Pentagon has delayed the carrier-launched drone program amid ongoing reviews of the program’s requirements, defense officials told Military.com.
A planned competition among defense companies has been put on hold as the Pentagon examines plans for the drone and responds to criticism from lawmakers that the initial requirements have been too narrowly configured.
A formal Request For Proposal, or RFP, which had been planned for release by the Navy later this month, has been delayed by a few weeks.
The Navy plans to deliver a carrier-based drone by 2020, called the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, system.
Criticism of the requirements has come, in large measure, from analysts, defense officials and lawmakers such as Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House’s Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee.
Through the engineering of stealth platforms such as the B-2 bomber, the Air Force has extensive experience designing low-observable or stealth aircraft.
Analysts have questioned whether 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.
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 and Pentagon officials have said.
Furthermore, 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.
One source explained if the UCLASS is configured to carry the extra fuel needed for longer-endurance missions, then it will need to be built with a larger vertical signature and therefore have a less-stealthy design. For this reason, advocates for more expansive requirements have favored planning for more aerial refueling of the drone in order to ensure that it is engineered with a stealthy, low-observable design.
While not willing to comment publically on plans for stealth or low-observability for UCLASS, Navy program officials have 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.
Critics however, have questioned whether this is possible and favored building an original design at the beginning of the program with stealth and weaponry factored into the construction and engineering.
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.