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

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”.

  • 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.

    • t1oracle

      This is an airplane and it’s building upon the knowledge we already have. In 2 years our computing power will have more than doubled in performance. Computer technology advances very rapidly.

      • Lurker

        Additionally, it doesn’t need to be able to dogfight or perform any fancy maneuvers (I don’t think that was ever the plan). As a surveillance and strike aircraft it mostly would just I need to follow waypoints and release weapons. From what I understand the most challenging AI capabilities this aircraft requires is operating on a carrier deck crawling with people and manned planes, and the X-47B demonstrator is already starting to do some of that.

        Additional AI capabilities could be added incrementally over time as software is easier to change than weapons capacity or stealth. (I’m not sure I understand how that’s possible)

        • Lurker

          I meant to say I don’t understand how adding stealth capabilities over time is possible, something the Navy’s watered down UCLASS specs seemed to support. Reduced RAM painting?

          Damn iPad keyboard…

        • “it mostly would just I need to follow waypoints and release weapons.”

          No. I quote again, “EVADE TRACKING technologies and air defenses long enough to deliver precision strike weapons on specific targets.” emphasis added.

          Flying around known enemy defenses is something we can do today with stealth drones like the RQ-170 and definitely inside the capabilities of the initial UCLASS requirements. Problem is the enemy changes and has the capability to track our aircraft (that’s why tech giant Iran has one of ours). The drone has to be able to make dynamic decisions in real time.

      • blight_

        Considering the DARPA challenge in 2005 (crossing a desert autonomously) was successful, flying from A to B and dropping a weapon should not be too hard.

        My guess is designing a simulation in silico to pretend to be an airplane is easy. Integrating this program into hardware will be an interesting hurdle, but not insurmountable with enough Obamadollars (and whoever comes after him, be they D or R).

        If an airplane’s mission is to fly into Baghdad, drop two bombs and return home by the pre-programmed route, that is one thing. If the aircraft is programmed to use DAS and onboard radar to probabilistically predict force dispositions in all available paths and then iteratively re-optimize path to target to evade enemy radar, or to decide if rushing through is the better alternative, the aircraft may produce interesting behaviors.

        Ground attack is even worse. Lazy approach: API that attacks GPS coordinates provided to it with weapons provided to it by a ground controller. Nastier: Write subroutines designed to identify force disposition of friendlies using Blue Force Tracker. Write a separate program that can recognize friendly AFV’s based on IR emission spectra or the recognition devices, based on training data derived from NTC, JRTC etc. Combine both inputs together, then write one that can pick out enemy forces based on acoustic, light emissions (weapons discharges).

        Optional: Natural language recognition (“…sniper fire coming from the mosque with the blue minaret, not the red one”).

        Until then computers are /great/ at executing very specific things when directed by a human. Have a GPS coordinate? They’ll drop a bomb on target. You can design a program to autonomously fly to the area and drop the bomb, then return to airbase and wait for refuel and reload. But people have high expectations of machines…perhaps a little too high for the moment.

      • oracle – computing power doubles AI development is M U C H slower.

        We’ve been talking about automatic target identifying software since 2002 for FCS. That’s over a decade ago and we still don’t have it even though we’ve doubled computing power FIVE times since then…

        While technology advances at breakneck speed the tendency to believe what the snake oil sellers are selling remains constant.

    • JimmyD

      Stop with the logic. We want the contractors to toss in anti-gravity too. Pronto.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • Dfens

      20 years of development is cutting edge. It’s never in the history of aviation taken that long to design an airplane, until now. You might as well get comfortable flying old shit because Lockheed’s not planning on building any more F-35’s than they absolutely have to, and they seem to have stirred up a huge rabble who are convinced that if they kill that program immediately it will really show them. Too bad the stories about “br’er rabbit” and Tom Sawyer are racist now.

      • blight_

        I’m trying to imagine the Wright Brothers vs Cost-Plus R&D. Yuck.

        • Dfens

          Ironically, the Wright brothers were sort of in that position. There was a guy named Samuel Langley (for whom the NASA facility is named) who had a very significant government funded research program to create an airplane, but he was a government employee, not a contractor.

          • blight_

            Yep, Langley is the guy I am thinking about. He and Glenn Curtis tried to be patent trolls and screw the Wright Brothers (go figure).

  • 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.

    • Dfens

      It’s not the U that keeps this program from being interesting to defense contractors and thus the military. This is basically a production contract now. All the development work has been done. No one is interested in production work. They all want the free money that comes with development.

  • JimmyD

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

  • OldFedVet1941

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