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Industry Studies UCLASS Carrier Operations

The U.S. Navy Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has awarded contracts to four industry teams to conceptually demonstrate that an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) unmanned aircraft (UA) system can provide persistent intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) and strike capabilities for CVN-based Carrier Air Wing (CVW) operations in the 2018 timeframe.

The UCLASS awards were made to: The Boeing Company; General Atomics Aeronautical; Lockheed Martin Corporation; and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation.

The foundation for the UCLASS effort was established during fiscal year 2010, when the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations updated the “Power Projection from the Sea (PPftS) Beyond 2024 Capability Based Assessment (CBA).” The revised CBA became the basis for the UCLASS System Initial Capabilities Document (ICD).

General Atomics Predator-C Avenger

General Atomics Predator-C Avenger must be considered a top contender in the UCLASS program. Photo courtesy of General Atomics

A key task of the new contracts is the analysis of that ICD and other available documents to develop the appropriate concept of operations (CONOPS) and system requirements for UCLASS.

As outlined in the subsequent Broad Agency Announcement (BAA), “The UCLASS system will enhance carrier capability, capacity, and versatility for the Joint Force Commander through integration of persistent and mission flexible UA into the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) by the 2018 timeframe. UCLASS will provide a UA capable of persistent surveillance with precision strike. It will be a major step forward toward achieving operation and integration of manned with unmanned systems within the CVW and will contribute to increasing sea-based capacity across the spectrum of maritime and littoral missions. It will be assigned as part of the CVW and will be responsive to tasking from the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander. A UCLASS detachment may operate independently or as part of an existing unit based upon future analysis of operating concepts. The system will be sustainable onboard the carrier, maintained by fleet Sailors, and it should minimize increases in the logistics footprint of the current CVW.”

The UCLASS system envisioned by service planners will consist of an Air Segment (including air vehicle, a mission system, and a remote vehicle control system); a Connectivity and Control Segment (including interconnectivity to external DoD and carrier air wing assets, Navy and DoD networks and satellite systems, and existing DoD Tasking, Collection, Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (TCPED) systems); a CVN [carrier] Segment (launch and recovery), and a System Support Segment (providing support for all of the system segments).

Boeing Phantom Ray

Boeing, also awarded a UCLASS contract by NAVAIR, recently achieved the first flight of its Phantom Ray UCAV. Boeing photo

Noting that desired persistence should allow a single carrier to provide sustained 24/7 ISR capabilities even when conducting 12-hour flight deck operations, the BAA acknowledges that the envisioned system “may require aerial refueling capability.”

“The air vehicle mission/avionics systems are anticipated to include Electro-Optic/Infrared (EO/IR) and Radio Frequency (RF) systems compatible with other CVW systems,” it adds. “Targeting quality information and tracks should be provided from the air vehicle directly to other CVW assets and to mission systems. Reach back to other ISR systems and the TCPED network will be achieved via wide and narrow band communication systems, vehicle-to-vehicle data links, and from network systems supporting BLOS [beyond line of sight] and LOS [line of sight] connectivity. Weapons release will be accomplished under positive human control to achieve time critical mission objectives.”

The work being performed under the four contracts is intended to support pre-Milestone A program activities, including the Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), development of the CONOPS and system requirements documents, and analysis of potential material solutions to meet a goal for operational capability in the 2018 timeframe.


In parallel with the UCLASS effort, the ongoing Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration (UCAS-D) program “will inform UCLASS development and provide technology risk reduction for Unmanned Aircraft (UA) integration into carrier environments.”

X-47B UCAS-D second flight

Northrop Grumman’s X-47B UCAS-D comes in to land after its second flight. Northrop Grumman photo

In early February of this year the Northrop Grumman Corporation-built U.S. Navy X-47B UCAS-D aircraft successfully completed its historic first flight at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), California.

Northrop Grumman is the Navy’s UCAS-D prime contractor and leader of the UCAS-D industry team that includes GKN Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, Eaton, GE, Hamilton Sundstrand, Dell, Honeywell, Goodrich, Moog, Wind River, Parker Aerospace and Rockwell Collins.

The Navy awarded the UCAS-D prime contract to Northrop Grumman in August 2007. Company representatives describe the six-year contract as “call[ing] for the development of two X-47B fighter-sized aircraft. The program will demonstrate the first-ever carrier launches and recoveries by an autonomous, unmanned aircraft with a low-observable-relevant planform. Autonomous aerial refueling will also be performed after carrier integration and at-sea trials.”

Following envelope expansion flights at Edwards, UCAS-D will transition to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where the system will undergo additional tests to validate its readiness to begin testing in the maritime and carrier environment.

The program is preparing the X-47B for carrier trials in 2013.


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...

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    Excitng development for Carrier Fleets