Navy’s UCLASS Competition Delayed Until Next Year

131109-N-ZZ999-176The start of a formal completion among vendors to build the Navy’s carrier-launched drone has been delayed until sometime in 2016 pending the results of an ongoing Pentagon review, Navy officials said.

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS, is envisioned as a next-generation platform able to deliver maritime-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology along with weapons-strike capability.

The Navy had planned to issue a formal Request For Proposal, or RFP, by the end of July of last year, but questions from lawmakers and Pentagon officials about the platform’s requirements and mission scope wound up delaying the program.

Last summer, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and other top Pentagon officials met with the Navy as part of a larger meeting with all the services to discuss the Defense Department’s aviation portfolio. Following the results of this ongoing DoD portfolio review, the Navy will release a UCLASS RFP and formally begin the competition.

The concerns from critics prior to the delay were focused on whether the UCLASS drone was going to be engineered with sufficient stealth technology and become an integral part of the carrier air wing.

Some proponents of a stealthy platform maintained that stealth configurations needed to be engineered into the platform design at the inception of the program and not be incrementally applied. They stressed that the first-of-its kind carrier-launched platform should be weaponized and stealthy enough to elude more sophisticated enemy air-defenses.

The UCLASS would offer the Navy much greater at-sea, long-dwell ISR technology and allow the service to conduct extended maritime surveillance drone missions without having to secure permission to launch or land an aircraft from a host country. In addition, it could bring the prospect of having an armed, stealthy drone able to move over enemy territory, evade tracking technologies and air defenses long enough to deliver precision strike weapons on specific targets.

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.

A 10-month long selection process will follow the release of the RFP.

“The final RFP will be given to the four vendors. They will have 60-days to refine their proposals. At that time we will begin formal source selection and we will evaluate the proposals,” Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, Program Executive Officer, unmanned aviation and strike weapons said last summer.

The Navy’s carrier-based drone demonstrator, the X-47B, flew from a carrier in May and November of last year and is now working on streamlining carrier deck operations and maneuvers with manned aircraft.

The Navy launched and landed a carrier-based drone in rapid succession with an F/A-18 fighter jet as part of a series of joint manned and unmanned flight tests aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in August of last year off the coast of Norfolk, Va., service officials said.

After an eight minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area before moving out of the way for an F/A-18 to land, Navy officials said.

Navy engineers worked on some slight modifications to the X-47B aircraft in order to allow it to both land and integrate in rapid succession with fixed-wing fighter jets.

— Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com

About the Author

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

    A pretty neat concept and it will eventually become a jack of all trades from being a missile carrier, network relay, and light bomber. But what about hacking??? Nothing can be wireless and also be “hackless”.

    • t1oracle

      Direct line of sight satellite communications. Once we get quantum encryption figured out eavesdropping (which already requires that you break the line of sight) without being detected will be physically impossible. You would have an easier job hacking the satellite network or the command and control center. GPS spoofing may still be an issue, but I as long as the drone is being monitored people should be able to catch that.

    • NathanS

      Drones are getting ever more autonomous as well. They’re no longer a large scale remote controlled plane (where the adversary could jam the signal to bring one down). They can fly themselves on a pre-defined mission and ignore EW attacks. Only if they receive an encrypted order from a direct line-of-sight satellite would they change their mission plan using a rolling code that makes them immune to ‘replay’ attacks.

  • Lurker

    Dissappointing, but hopefully it means they’ll get the requirements right (or at least better) this time. The Navy seemed determined to reduce DoD’s only active UCAV program into a glorified Sea Predator. For once, it seems that Congressional meddling was actually a good thing…I guess a broken clock is right twice a day…

  • Wait they want to go from here… “After an eight minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area before moving out of the way for an F/A-18 to land, Navy officials said.”

    to here… “In addition, it could bring the prospect of having an armed, stealthy drone able to move over enemy territory, evade tracking technologies and air defenses long enough to deliver precision strike weapons on specific targets.”

    In ONE iteration?

    We didn’t do that with airplanes. Taking the human out of it isn’t going to make the monumental artificial intelligence requirements any easier.

    Way to guarantee we won’t see drones on carriers for a decade or two.

    Let’s get the ISR drone flying first and then go for the automated strike capability.

  • BlackOwl18E

    Why am I not surprised? With the UCLASS the Navy had the stealth capability it needed in its strike force. A stealth capability that was pretty much the only effective argument the F-35C had for being purchased by the Navy. It’s no surprise that the JSF mafia aimed to delay this.

    By the way, while we’re doing this the T-50 has entered service with the Russian Air Force and will now be doing its qualifications testing with the armed forces of Russia.

    • t1oracle

      I wouldn’t worry too much about the T-50. It still has round exhaust pipes. That’s not stealth.

      • Plus:

        IRST pod popping out like a pimple
        metal frame on canopy
        poor inlet management
        no saw-tooth on edges of weapons/landing bays.

        • Guest

          The T-50’s flying now are pre-series production prototypes, all the things you mentioned are part of the serialised production.

          Hell they even change the engine it will have + the composites, what is flying now would be a franken Su27 mark 4/5 variant, Su-35 (which the Soviet Republic Federalised Capital Nation Russian Air Force’s main plane) on juice/nitrous.

          As for the exhaust pipes, the thrust vectoring version is rounded/blended. The T-50/F-22 will be closer is overall technical capacity, than many would believe.

          • Guest

            in not is.

          • Dfens

            Wow, you people think you know a hell of a lot more than you do.

          • Thrust vectoring,soooo relevant…

          • Thing is, without changing airframe big time, I dont see those issues being all of the sudden fixed right before production.

      • BlackOwl18E

        From what I’ve heard there are already a lot of highly qualified people in the west that have built models and computer simulations of the T-50’s RCS and all of them have concluded it’s actually very stealthy from the front and sides, which is what the Russians were aiming for. In fact, from the information available it looks like it’s got a level of stealth that is equal to or better than the JSF, which also has a round exhaust pipe of its own.

        The T-50 seems to have a solid design and will be a credible threat. What Russia’s real problem will be is whether or not they can make enough of them to matter. The sanctions we’ve hit them with certainly aren’t helping their predicament, but they’ve pushed in closer to China and that could help them. It’s all a numbers game really and it’s still too early to tell what Russia’s situation will be when they try to ramp up production of a finished T-50.

        • Who are those people and where could I find those researchers?

          Because as far as we know, various USAF officials have been skeptical about PAK-FAs stealth, they praise its maneuverability and speed, while being reserved about its sensors and stealth characteristics.

          • Dfens

            The people who know don’t yap about it on the internet or publish coffee table books about it.

          • sambo

            Can you give us some indepth analysis on the situation please?

  • Eric

    So we are continuing with unnecessarily delaying stuff long enough for the chinese to copy and produce it themselves. Why the hell do they delay a program that is cutting edge and will give us a significant leg up, long enough for the technology to be copied by others and go obsolete???? This whole 20 year drawing board to flightline process is antiquated and needs to go. With the technology we have available such as simulated testing, everything should be done in shorter timespans. Not longer. I have said my peace, im just getting tired of it. I am becoming nervous as a future Pilot that the aircraft i get in will be an antiquated death trap before it ever sees combat and men and women will die because of it.

  • Franklin

    The thing I don’t see is the cost. If its cheap enough then build a bunch now, so they can integrate into naval operations. If its not then dump it and design a cost effective model, but get it done now. The whole concept behind uclass is cost savings over a manned platform otherwise forget it. A Navy pilot is always going to be better than a flying meal ticket for Lockheed. If you point lockheed in the right direction they will produce what you want or starve!

  • blight_

    I feel that the U part of UCLASS could have been tested first in an F/A-18 demonstrator before building the new platform. CLASS technologies could have been tested in another platform before going to a demonstrator. Debating if we are trying to take too many steps forward all at once.

  • JimmyD

    Plan to truncate the F35 program and replace them with real “future” aircraft like these.

    • Dfens

      Oh yeah, the next program will be better. They will do it right next time. Don’t they always?

  • OldFedVet1941

    God help this program if Loc-Mart wins the bid. It will take forever and cost 10 times the estimated cost to build!