Watchdog Warns of Navy Carrier Drone Delays and High Price Tag

130514-N-CZ979-023A 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

About the Author

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

    Better to delay it trying to build the right thing than build the wrong thing on time.

    • Lance

      right on.

    • Fatman

      Heard the same thing during just about every stage of the F-35 program

      • Vpanoptes

        And apparently the powers that be did neither…

      • Bernard

        The problem with the F35 was over ambition and scope creep. They wanted it to do everything for everyone and now it sucks at everything. Hopefully with this they keep it mission focused. If they make a series of drones each optimized for specific missions and control costs with shared parts then they will have something wonderful. The key is balance how much is shared and how much is unique. I think the airframes absolutely must be unique, too many factors will dictate shape.

        • Dfens

          More crap from another know nothing.

        • Guesteroo

          Scope creep??? The F-35 failed to meet its original RFP requirements, when they were firm and fixed. Any “creep” since then is irrelevant. Lockheed has a pattern of lying about what they can do and then once they’ve won the contract, jacking up costs to cover whatever corrections they need to make. And yet they’re always treated like good honest players by the customers they’ve screwed when the next competition rolls around.

          • t1oracle

            Good points, contract abuses need to stop. Every project should have a firm price cut off where an act of congress is required to provide more funding. Every request for additional funds beyond original estimates should require a full reevaluation of the project and it’s goals. Furthermore, every failure to remain within budget should be recorded and held against a contractor in any future bids for projects. Of course we also need further methods to prevents bribes and kickbacks, and all competitions for projects need to be as open as possible.

            Regardless, I think the UCLASS has an incredible amount of potential. We just need to keep the forces of corruption in check.

          • Dfens

            Put in a firm price cap and you invite more fraud in the way of problems that are covered up. Do you really want that?

          • t1oracle

            Fraud will be the same regardless, and the answer to fraud will be the same. You test the system, and if it fails to meet requirements, you sue. Any contractor who defrauds the government should be banned from participating in future projects.

          • Dfens

            Some fraud costs money, some costs lives. They aren’t the same.

          • Dan

            Then you have to stop Military from making changes during production too. Problem we have now and in the future is, technology changes extremely fast. You can’t have a building program that takes a decade to plan and fund. By the time it is ready for full production, it is obsolete.These huge contracts for military wide major equipment changes do not work. One Air Craft or Ship (LCS) will not work for everyone in all situations.

          • t1oracle

            True, timeframe and price both need to be treated the same. They both need maximum limits set in stone only alterable by act of Congress. In software we use agile development to address changing requirements. Maybe military contracts need a similar approach? In such a case, the focus would shift to making working prototypes and adjusting requirements based responses to demonstrations. Although that can get expensive very quickly, they may have to settle for computer simulated prototypes.

          • blight_

            No more expensive than spinning off variants of F-35 that don’t meet IOC and need upgrades to meet IOC, and then relying on concurrency to continue to procure aircraft that don’t meet IOC…

    • blight_

      Keep delaying it, they are happy to spend your “development money” while you think about what you want.

      Complete it as it was supposed to be completed originally, then use it as your testbed before you start designing whatever it is you really want.

      But delaying UCLASS just so you can spend longer on development? Yuck.

      • Dfens

        This is typical. The Navy bureacracy wants to stay in place and the defense contractor wants to continue to make money.

  • oblatt23

    UAVs are classic disruptive technology that messes with the iron rice bowls of people in the pentagon and contractors. The problem is that it is much more like a munition than an aircraft and that means much lower costs. Simply because its much harder to gold plate a munition that has no lives at stake.

    The navy knows that as soon as a combat UAV is deployed the cost pressure on the gravy train will be intense. So they will continue to drag their feet and try to maximize the costs.

    The real future of UCAVs is in china where there is a thriving industry real competition and the drive to pass the US by.

    • blight_

      Oh, I’m sure they’ll figure out ways to gild the UAVs.

      “Let’s use them as distributed bistatic radar arrays! And fuse the sensors for the operators!”

      Same deal as the F-35. Money for the avionics.

      • Dfens

        UAV’s were the magical answer to everything when they were being developed on private funds. Now all the sudden they are so “important” they have to be developed on a typical “cost plus award fee” type of contract and — oh what a surprise — suddenly the U is not a magical answer to everything. Give a “for profit” company a financial incentive to drag out and jack up costs and that’s exactly what they do.

  • Guest

    They should stick with the X-47 series for the intermediary, as it has the raw materials, just accept, you’ll make the leap after it runs through all the testing.

  • Bobby

    The DoD needs to get back to small step incremental/derivative innovations. Stop trying to hit do it all home runs with every program. Build a UAS first. Then leap frog that to a low capability UCAS. Then iterate from that to the high capability UCAS. This may cost more in the long run, but you get more for your money at each iteration. Oh, and you get operational aircraft a helluva lot sooner.

    • mule

      Great point. This will be the first production UAV operating as a part of the carrier air wing. Also, it will have a level of autonomy unmatched by any UAV to date. The Navy really needs to learn how to use these things first before attempting to make a super stealth attack and recon drone. What do you want to bet that mid way through development they tack on A2A requirements?

  • Robbie

    Hats off to the naval aviation community-their delaying tactics are working. No way drones replace them if they can help it.

  • Highguard

    Enjoyed everyone’s perspective. Some truth in each comment. One thing of concern is sequestration. It hits the ACQ community hard, not so much the R&D community. Nation needs to decide if its OK to have a military that is technologically-speaking 2nd or 3rd in the world. Sounds dangerous to me. JROC is an antiquated bureaucracy. Joint Staff would do well to reassign all those personnel to research inefficiencies in the other executive departments and hit Congress square in the eye with their inefficiencies and lack of credibility. We just lost $4.6B to unvalidated student tax returns. Hmmmm, that could have funded a whole SQ of UCLASS. And Lindsey Graham has gaul to question the AIr Force’s credibility.

    • blight_

      Bigger fish to fry. Use of tax inversions to reduce tax liabilities is going to pull even more money out of the pool. Companies will never come back to America unless you agree to forfeit even more money than the tax inversion saves them (and there’s no point of doing that, except for prestige). We are well into the path of a nation with less money, because entities of means are easily capable of reducing their tax liabilities, and the remaining tax base is small businesses and middle class, who are expected to protect people wealthier and poorer than them.

  • Mitch S.

    I wonder how much of the UAV mission rethink has to do with uncertainties about F35C’s capabilities and availability.

  • AWF

    What percentage of projects fail due to bad requirements, again?


    Yes, that sounds right. It’s 70%.

    Can’t believe the Navy’s changing the requirements. If you think there’s a chance they’re going to change sooner than the thing gets built, how about you analyze the requirements to make them more robust against changing needs, so that the the end product can still complete whatever mission you end up needing it for? Nah, makes too much sense.

    • t1oracle

      As a software engineer, I can tell you that changing requires is the single most destructive thing to development timelines and final product quality. You spend your time and energy trying to design something so that it’s perfect, and then a requirement that you based 90% of your design on changes. Now you’re stuck forever trying to clean up messes while delivering half broken prototypes to keep up the illusion of progress. Finally you get to release day and you have something that looks like it works, but everyone involved in building it knows that it’s a complete mess underneath.

      Before any work begins, the requirements must be final.

      • John Fedup

        Pretty much my experience as well.

      • blight_

        A good amount of R&D cost goes into “optimizing”. And once you change the parameters you are optimizing for you, you’ve just flushed a lot of R&D down the toilet.

        Let’s design a stealth aircraft…F117…first it will carry bombs…now it will become an aerial dogfighter with supercruise, powerful radar…

        No, we went with the first iteration, a stealthy bomb truck with no afterburner and primitive nav systems to get to Baghdad, drop a bomb, and return home. Cost? Modest. Sadly, this is from the same company that gave us the F-22 and JSF. Where did it all go wrong?

        If things are to change, engineers instead of money-men have to be in charge. But when in hell is that going to happen? Many hospitals put a doctor in the driver’s seat, since it keeps the enterprise’s chief mover focused on the mission of the organization, not the shareholder-owned corporation. And if companies are ever to change, it requires the largest shareholders to send directives to focus on success, not profit. When in hell is /that/ going to happen?

        • Dfens

          They don’t want engineers in charge, that’s why they got rid of airplane designers. Too high profile a job. A famous engineer might just tell everyone the truth about why their money is being wasted. So instead you have to settle for a non-famous engineer telling you the truth.

          • blight_

            Engineers like to solve technical problems. If putting lipstick on a pig is pointless, they will tell you. But if it makes sense for the company to put the lipstick on to bill the government, then the company will do it…engineer input or not.

  • @ToMonyetbego

    Ithink, UCLASS better focus on more stealtier n’ weapon payload with limited range n’

  • +cgee

    Wait until the Chinese or the Russians put one of these into test, I bet they decide real quick.

  • blight_

    This will go into the history books as a case where government /did/ change the requirements on the fly, causing much drama.

    Along with the B-70 Valkyrie, which was a high and fast and became a low and fast.

    • Dfens

      I think you mean the B-1 bomber. The A was the “high and fast” version. The B was low and slow, and had a reduced radar signature. The B-70, on the other hand, was always high and fast, and the program mostly fell victim to the ICBM advocates, which is unfortunate because to this day we still need a Mach 3+ bomber.

      • blight_

        Re-checking my notes, this could also apply to the B-58.

        B-58, B-70 and B-1A were all intended to be “high and fast” but were sub-optimal when things switched to low and slow. B-70 in particular also turned out to be less cost-effective than simply ICBMing a target. I suppose the B-58 is the bomber most affected by the change to low and slow, as it was produced during the high and fast era and couldn’t be scrapped on a whim just because things changed.

        • Dfens

          It shows you how far ahead of its time the SR-71 was, It had a reduced signature and was fast as hell. The combination was effective right up to the day they put it in the museum.

          • t1oracle

            The SR-71 was a waste of fuel. No matter how fast you make an aircraft, you can always make a faster missile. Rockets can reach the moon after all and jets can’t do that.

          • Dfens

            Right, that’s why the Soviets could never touch an SR-71 with a missile, because it wasn’t fast enough.

  • majr0d

    I mentioned this exact same delay when it was debated whether we should be developing a deep strike capable drone with basically artificial intelligence vs. going for something technologically feasible in the near term such as an ISR platform for the fleet to free up planes to do other missions, develop experience with drones and push the technology envelope.

    The first shipboard aircraft were not air superiority or strategic bombing platforms. Our technological hubris is going to make the first widespread fielding of carrier drones a much longer and expensive journey than it needs to be. Funny, some will blame delays on the Navy’s inability to change vs. recognizing their own role in expecting too much, too soon from technology.

    • blight_

      Indeed…we still need eyes of the fleet. Good scouting has saved our bacon (notably at Midway).