A government watchdog group has released a new report saying ongoing Navy plans and debates about how to build a first-of-its kind carrier launched drone could wind up creating serious cost and resourcing challenges.
The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, report also says continued deliberations about the scope of the drone’s requirements are substantially delaying the schedule for the program’s development.
The report also claims that the technological knowledge obtained by the Navy about resources for its new drone may no longer be relevant or needed in light of potential changes to the requirements.
The Navy’s initial plan for its Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS, called for a carrier-launched surveillance drone to be operational from flight decks by 2020. Now, that date has slipped to 2022, according to the GAO report.
A formal competition among vendors to build the drone was slated to begin last summer. However, the GAO said a contract award for the program has been pushed back to 2017.
The first flight of the UCLASS drone has been pushed back from 2017 to 2020. Concerns from lawmakers, analysts and members of the military about the scope of the drone’s planned requirements and missions wound up delaying the developmental process and inspiring a formal Pentagon review of the platform.
The delay in starting the competition is designed to allow time for a formal review of needed requirements for the platform. The examination focuses on the new carrier-launched drone’s stealth, range and weapons bay.
The ongoing strategic portfolio review is co-led by the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, defense officials explained.
Aerial refueling technology is central to the debates about UCLASS because it dictates the drone’s fuel tank. Larger fuel tanks can impact the design of the drone and affect its stealth properties by changing the radar cross-section of the aircraft.
Some design proposals for UCLASS would make the drone less stealthy and less able to carry a larger weapons payload – yet extend its range as an ISR platform. Other proposals focus more on stealth and weapons payload.
If UCLASS were designed for maximum stealth and weapons-carrying potential from its inception, engineers would most likely envision an aircraft with comparatively smaller or differently shaped fuel tanks in order to lower the radar cross-section of the aircraft.
The GAO report maintains that requirements changes favoring a strike platform might cause cost and resource problems.
“Ongoing debate about whether the primary role of the UCLASS system should be mainly surveillance with limited strike or mainly strike with limited surveillance has delayed the program. Requirements emphasizing a strike role with limited surveillance could be more demanding and costly,” the report says.
As a result, the GAO report asserts that the Navy may need to re-examine its available resources and funding options if the requirements wind up changing.
“If the final UCLASS requirements emphasize a strike role with limited surveillance, the Navy will likely need to revisit its understanding of available resources in the areas of design knowledge, funding, and technologies before awarding an air system development contract,” the report says.
The Navy’s response to the GAO concurs with its findings, saying “the Navy agrees that if the JROC validates a more demanding set of requirements it will be necessary to revisit the UCLASS schedule to allow for potential development and maturation of additional technologies.”
— Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com