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X-47B UCAS-D to UCLASS: The Road Ahead

The accomplishments of the Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) test program this past summer have been a source of pride for U.S. naval aviation as well as spurring debate about the future of the community. The successful test program of takeoffs, landings, deck handling procedures, and traffic patterns flown by the X-47B decisively proved the viability of a UCAV being integrated into future U.S. Navy Carrier Air Wings (CVWs). Questions at the moment surround where the Navy presently stands with its UCAV program, and how does the road ahead lead to carrier-capable unmanned warplanes?

Additional testing of the X-47B prototypes is presently ongoing aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71)

Following the completion of this summer’s sea trials aboard the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), both X-47B prototypes were initially put into storage. But that didn’t last long. In fact, additional testing of the X-47B prototypes is presently ongoing aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). Trials to evaluate the feasibility of in-flight refueling of UCAVs are also presently ongoing. As the final act in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA’s) Unmanned Air Combat System – Demonstration (UCAS–D) program, the refueling trials are bringing to a close one of the most successful technology demonstration/test programs in history.

X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV)

A X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator prepares to execute a touch and go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). The X-47B spent much of the summer conducting a series of demonstrations aboard the Bush. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Walter

Along with the Boeing X-45 test program, DARPA and its military service partners have evaluated a vast range of technologies, tactical scenarios, and operational concepts needed to  develop the first generation of U.S. Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) over the next decade. Just a dozen years after the first combat shot of a Hellfire missile from a modified Predator drone, it today looks like the technologies needed to make a legitimate UCAV ready for service have arrived. However, it needs to be said that no combat aircraft, or for that matter any other weapon system, is the product of the current state-of-the-art technologies available. On the contrary, aircraft like the UCAVs being envisioned will be the products of the requirements and specifications written long before their creation.

Many supporters of unmanned systems have genuinely hoped that America’s next major tactical aircraft program would produce a pilotless aircraft with similar qualities (stealth, sensors, range, armament, payload, etc.) to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fight (JSF)

The first such program of record is expected to be the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS). Many supporters of unmanned systems have genuinely hoped that America’s next major tactical aircraft program would produce a pilotless aircraft with similar qualities (stealth, sensors, range, armament, payload, etc.) to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fight (JSF). That hope looks to be on hold for now, and as might be imagined, given the statement above about technologies, requirements and specifications, the problem lies in the nether land between what is possible, what is affordable, and what is needed.

Boeing X-45

The DARPA/U.S. Air Force X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) system demonstration program completed the first phase of demonstrations, known as Block I, on Feb. 28, 2003. The X-45 was one in an array of programs used to develop the first generation of U.S. Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs). NASA photo by Lori Losey

The problem of deciding what UCLASS will look like and be capable of will be defined by the Navy’s program requirement, which has been developed through the inputs of a number of different groups from the Navy and the Department of Defense (DoD). It is the varying opinions of what UCLASS should do and be that have been the cause of so much concern and confusion in recent months.

It is the varying opinions of what UCLASS should do and be that have been the cause of so much concern and confusion in recent months.

The problems begin in late 2012, when the original Navy UCLASS requirement was submitted to the DoD’s Joint Requirements Oversight Committee (JROC). Headed by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James Winnefeld, the JROC severely “dialed back” the Navy’s robust UCLASS requirement that previously had included strike/reconnaissance missions into “contested” airspace. Instead, the revised JROC requirement projected a more surveillance-oriented mission set in “permissive”/undefended areas, with only a limited strike mission and a payload similar to the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. While the justification for this revision was never fully explained by DoD, there appear to have been several reasons for their reluctance to specify a more capable and robust UCLASS, including:

  • Cost – Despite the well-understood cost benefits of unmanned systems versus manned aircraft, the JROC appears to have thought that the cost of developing and fielding a “high-end” UCLASS would be too great, and potentially unsupportable in the projected budget environment for the rest of this decade. This could become particularly troubling in light of the Navy’s continued acquisition of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the probable move to high-rate production of the F-35 JSF.
  • Risk – DoD and the Navy are still stinging from the cost escalations that transpired during the development and fielding of both the F-35 JSF and the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). In particular, the U.S. Navy’s inability to control development and contractor costs, along with a number of risk-related problems bringing new technologies to the fleet, probably caused the JROC members to want to limit UCLASS.
  • Fighting the Last War – There is an unfortunate and common tradition within DoD and the military services to buy weapons systems and develop tactics/doctrine to fight the war just finished. Given that the U.S. military has been fighting insurgencies over the past dozen years, it is very easy to forget that across the globe, the militaries of many countries are buying state-of-the-art air warfare systems. These include fifth-generation fighter aircraft (Sukhoi PAK FA/T-50, Chinese J-20, etc.), and advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems like the Russian Almaz S–300/350/400 series.

When word of the JROC-revised UCLASS requirement was released earlier this year, the reactions from the halls of Congress to the naval aviation community itself ranged from outright disbelief to outrage. Members of the House of Representatives wrote directly to Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus, expressing concern over the inputs from the JROC, and the possibility that the pending UCLASS requirement would make for a much less capable aircraft. Numerous editorials and opinions from analysts and aviation experts supported these concerns. However, a recent GAO report also expressed concerns with the anticipated pace and risks of the UCLASS program, which intends to put four detachments of four to six aircraft on carrier decks for deployment in the 2020 to 2022 timeframe. All this public attention appears to have recently had an effect on the near-term future of the UCLASS program.

“As a system, what we want to do as an affordability initiative is to ensure that the air vehicle design upfront has the growth capability without major modifications to go from permissive to contested [environments].”

Beginning earlier this month, the Navy began to lay out its own vision for UCLASS, explained by Rear Adm. Mat Winter, USN, the commander of the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Unmanned Aviation and Strike Systems Program Executive Office (PEO). “As a system, what we want to do as an affordability initiative is to ensure that the air vehicle design upfront has the growth capability without major modifications to go from permissive to contested [environments],” Winter said. “Specific proposals and the designs that are given back to the government, those will be informing us of how much of that permissive to contested and the air refueling provision actually shows up in their designs. Air refueling provisions are still part of the requirements.”

Lockheed Martin UCLASS

The Lockheed Martin Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) air vehicle concept is likely one of the four competitors for the U.S. Navy UCLASS program. Lockheed Martin rendering

In speaking to the basic UCLASS requirement changes from what the JROC specified in late 2012, Winter explained, “Some are modular, some are fill…. so there is a whole spectrum of traditional design growth paths. We have to wait to see what industry proposes. The plan here is to provide an early operational capability that will be verified and validated for a light strike permissive environment. What we will ensure is that the design of the system (UCLASS) does not preclude what we call “capability growth,” to be able to operate in contested environments.”

Winter explained where the program stands during a Nov. 7 press conference.

Currently, four contractors are planning to submit bids, including Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics.

“That draft [UCLASS] request for proposal is in the final approval stages of our senior leadership authorities,” he said. “We anticipate that being released by the middle of December.”

Currently, four contractors are planning to submit bids, including Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Atomics. The UCLASS contract award is currently anticipated in late 2014, with the achievement of an early operational capability in the 2019 to 2021 timeframe, according to Winter.

General Atomics UCLASS

The General Atomics’ submission for the UCLASS program is based around their Sea Avenger. General Atomics photo

“That’s the current timeline,” he said. “With that, we’ll go into our source selection activity to down-select to a single air vehicle vendor. From that point we’ll be able to determine the exact timeline or schedule for the UCLASS program because we will have picked the specific air vehicle.”

While the Navy seems to have regained control of the UCLASS program and schedule, it remains to be seen if they can possibly put airframes onto an operational carrier deck by the end of this decade.

While the Navy seems to have regained control of the UCLASS program and schedule, it remains to be seen if they can possibly put airframes onto an operational carrier deck by the end of this decade. Fiscal limitations alone could derail both the program and schedule, resulting in a delay of years before UCAVs operate from the decks of U.S. aircraft carriers.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...