Navy Plans to Arm UCLASS with JDAMs

X-48B_landingThe Navy plans to load their next generation carrier drone with a wide range of weapons, including GPS-guided precision-strike air-to-ground weapons called Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, service officials said.

The Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft is being designed as a carrier-launched Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting, or IRS&T, technology, will also be designed to accomodate a next-generation Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, or AESA.

The exact weapons payload to be engineered on the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft is still a work-in-progress and something that will be influenced by the competing vendors offering designs, said Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager, unmanned carrier aviation program office.

While weaponization for the UCLASS is not planned as an immediate step, it is considered by developers to be an integral part of the platform’s future capabilities. It is expected the UCLASS will be able to draw from most of the weapons currently being used on the Navy’s carrier wings.

“Weapons requirements will be defined in the final proposals. It is up to the vendors to come back with proposals and leverage what is available,” Cmdr. Pete Yelle, UCLASS/UCAS-D requirements officer.

While adding weapons will be a significant future development for the UCLASS platform, the technology is still primarily intended as an ISR platform, Navy officials said.

“The UCLASS is primarily an ISR platform. The future strike capability is important but not the main reason for this system,” said Navy official familiar with the program.

In fact, there are fears inside the Defense Department that piling too many requirements onto the UCLASS could make the aircraft too expensive and possibly kill it.

As for the sensors, the Navy plans a wide array of intelligence-gathering capabilities for the UCLASS, he added.

The UCLASS has a threshold capability requirement for “multi-int” or multiple intelligence sensors. The UCLASS will be able to work operations over land and water using EO/IR , or electro-optical/infrared sensors, FMV  or full-motion video and eventually a fifth-generation AESA radar, Yelle said.

Yelle said that the integrated suite of sensors will also have what’s called “moving target indicator” sensors able to detect threats in maritime and land environments.

“It will have a persistent strike capability. That is what we intend this to be. It is not going to replace the Joint Strike Fighter. It is going to augment and enhance the air wing,” Yelle said.

A demonstrator air vehicle engineered as a test-bed aircraft to inform the UCLASS effort called the X-47B has been undergoing technical testing aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia. Some of the testing is intended to assess the air vehicle’s ability to land in stressful environmental conditions such as high winds.

As the first UAS of its kind to land on a carrier, the X-47B made history last summer upon first landing aboard the USS Bush. The ongoing tests are an effort to refine and improve the technology for the future UCLASS program of record.

“We’ve had great success of our evaluation of an unmanned system which is much more than just an air vehicle. The approach has been digitized and we’ve accumulated some great knowledge regarding how to take off and land consistently at the same point,” Duarte added.

The testing is in part designed to assess technical integration of the control systems, electronics on the ship, data links and connection to the air vehicle itself. This is designed to inform development of the concepts of operation, or CONOPS, for the UCLASS.

The Navy plans to release a draft request for proposal, or RFP, for UCLASS to industry next month and then formally submit a final technology-development phase RFP by the Spring of next year, Duarte said.

“We’re excited about moving forward with UCLASS with a draft request for proposal. This will get us proposals for the air vehicle. We are also developing a carrier segment and a control system and connectivity segment. This is a very complex integration challenge — to provide the capability that will revolutionize Naval warfare,” he explained.

Initial delivery of the UCLASS system, which includes the air vehicle, network and control systems, will take place three to six years after the contract award, he added.

In the meantime, the UCLASS program is making progress with preliminary design review contracts awarded this past summer; the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

“The preliminary design reviews are going well. We’re half way through. The point is to inform the final proposals for the technology development phase. They will get a chance to get feedback on their designs so what they submit for their proposals will have a degree of maturity,” Duarte said.

Overall, Navy program developers and leaders are enthusiastic about the advantages they feel UCLASS will bring to the fleet.

“We really need an organic ISR&T platform inherent to the air wing. Currently that does not exist and we rely on a lot of external sources. The capability will significantly enhance and force multiply the air wing and the strike group as a whole,” said Yelle.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • Aloe

    gotta put them AA missiles in there too!



  • andy

    Good technologies but too bad we let the bunch of Morons decided what to buy.

  • DB-1

    This thing could be evolved to be a wing man to a maned fighter, imagine an F-22 with one of these as a wing man that could carry extra air-to-air missiles that could be targeted by the Raptor, that one plane could conceivably destroy an entire wing of fighters. talk about force multipliers

    • LtKitty

      Stop! You’re making my down-under tingle.

      • DB-1

        Sorry didn’t mean to make you tingle, now imagine this. When the Raptor uses up all the UCAV missle load, the thing returns to base to re-arm, re-fuel and returns to the control of the Raptor to do it again.

    • EW3

      Suspect you mean an F35 as a wingman.
      The only fly in the ointment is that an F35 is a single pilot aircraft.
      An A6 would be a better wingman.

  • Big-Dean

    Outstanding! This thing will be dropping bombs even before the F-35 gets out of diapers

    • Rest Pal

      The F-35 is itself a bomb. All single-trip strike fighters are bombs. Yes?

  • Big-Dean

    I can see a near future scenario where a F-18F is leading a package of 4 UCLASS, two will carry bombs and two will fly cover with AA missiles. The WSO will use the sensors of the F-18F to act as a mini AWACS guiding the UCLASS to targets and/or deploying them for defense.

    • fanboy


      if you’re using active equipment like radar and ECM, and are pumping out data links to UCAVs, there’s no point in having stealth yourself
      and the F-35 doesn’t even have a two seat version

      • Dan
      • Smith28

        I can’t remember which aircraft it was but there was already talks about incorprating the UCLASS into fighter formations. I think it was the newest line of F-18s that were capable of transmitting commands to the UCLASS.

    • I just love how folks see a “near future scenario” where we are arming drones w/AA weapons and it hasn’t been done in a lab yet…

      There are reasons. The autonomy isn’t there. Controlling a drone while fighting your plane is a huge additional load on the pilot or weapons officer. Requiring human control creates a larger signature which can also be jammed or spoofed.

      Then there’s the lack of any evidence that drones are survivable in a non permissive sky…

      Heck with that! It works in the movies!!!

      • Big-Dean

        don’t be silly Maj, the WSO won’t be “flying the UCLASS, he will be giving them assignments, targets or areas to defend, then the drone will do that mission semi-autonomously.

        you’ve got to think outside the box man :-)

        • Oh I’m very capable of thinking outside the box just not doing away with reality.

          I never said the pilot/weapons officer is “flying” the drone. I’m talking about identifying targets, prioritizing engagement, assigning weapons while simultaneously evaluating which weapon is best and keeping track of what you have. This is tough to do for one plane, now multiply it by two or more.

          NONE of this “semi-autonomy” has been demonstrated (let alone developed) and you want to add AA missiles against targets moving in three dimensions at Mach 1 plus and employing countermeasures while trying to shoot the drones down.

          Ignore we haven’t created drones that can semi autonomously engage ONE moving target on the ground, a target that doesn’t know the drone is there and for sure isn’t trying to shoot the drone down. You have one super drone engaging air to air targets “semi-autonomously”, another engaging targets on the ground conducting countermeasures “semi-autonomously” and an F18 weapons pilot effortlessly feeding targets to the drones from his “safe” airplane and all in the “near future”.

          I’m not the one being silly.

          • STemplar

            Yes, I agree. These boards always get stuck on air to air combat and dog fighting. The bottom line is that if we engage in significant air to air combat our SEADs mission has failed, which means our air campaign is failing, and we are likely losing the war.

            Part of SEADs, the biggest part really, is destroying the radar coverage of an adversary, no radar means they don’t know where to aim their SAMs or send their fighters. If they know where to send the fighters, or we didn’t take out the airfields with PGMs, we are losing.

            The USN needs extended range and strike capacity. The reality, as opposed to the Xbox mentality, is that 95% of tacair’s job is strike, not dog fighting.

          • ST you’re nailing it but on top of that people don’t have a clue on how complicated semi autonomy let alone autonomy is.

      • ajspades

        What kinds of autonomy are you looking for? There are already drones that can takeoff, fly, navigate, pickup, put down, and land without external inputs.

        • I said it already, here’s a start “identifying targets, prioritizing engagement, assigning weapons while simultaneously evaluating which weapon is best and keeping track of what you have.”

          I haven’t mentioned automated defensive maneuvers/countermeasures and selecting new routes based on enemy action.

          • ajspades
          • Yes, now if we can get the enemy to use orange, green or blue tarps over their weapons, sensitive sights and leaders we’ll have taken a great step in giving drones a level of autonomy to identify targets.

          • ajspades

            Does the X-45 program fulfill all the qualifiers you are looking for in demonstrated autonomy?

          • The X45 had some interesting developments in autonomy faced with an extremely simple and canned scenario. Still had a human in the loop making decisions to engage (allowing a window for the enemy to exploit).

            Initial target may have not been autonomously identified.
            Threats likely did not use evasive maneuvers/countermeasures or try to shoot down the drones. No dummy or camouflaged targets. No aerial targets/threat.

            This was eight years ago and we haven’t seen any advances which is likely because of the difficulty of the problem. We were looking at automated software for FCS in 2003 to automatically identify targets for human gunners to engage. Long story short, nothing did better than the human brain. Look at the earlier test you cited and note how far we haven’t come. This is not an easy problem.

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  • ike

    The only thing Navy should be putting on it right now is a parachute.

    • Rest Pal

      Please wait till the drones has crashed a dozen times first. It’s funner.

  • Sounds like the Navy has found it’s replacement for the F-35.