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Mabus Responds to Congressional UCLASS Concerns

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An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completes an arrested landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) on July, 10 2013. US Navy Photo

An X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completes an arrested landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) on July, 10 2013. US Navy Photo

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has promised to work closely with the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces to address their concerns about the service’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, according to an Oct. 17 letter obtained by USNI News.

“[Sean Stackely] The Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research Development and Acquisition) will take onboard the questions you have raised regarding the acquisition strategy,” Mabus in the letter addressed to Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), the chairman of the subcommittee.
“[He] will continue to work closely with you and your subcommittee as this strategy is further refined.”

Mabus’s response was in reply to an earlier Sept. 17 letter jointly sent by Forbes and ranking member Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) questioning the acquisition strategy and some of the requirements for the UCLASS program. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) and some in industry have also raised similar concerns—enough so that some sources have suggested that the Navy’s draft request for proposals for the UCLASS will be delayed.

Agreeing with the two Congressmen, Mabus said that the UCLASS must be designed from the outset with margin for future capability growth. “The Navy intends, as you suggest, to leverage the highly innovative and competitive forces inherent in the unmanned aviation industry in order to increase the trade-space for survivability, payload and range for this aircraft,” he wrote.

However, industry sources and analysts have previously complained that the requirements currently proposed for the aircraft, which stresses endurance over low-observables and payload, will have limited potential for growth or significant capability enhancements. That is particularly true for operations inside highly contested airspace.

Moreover, according to industry sources, the current UCLASS range requirements, which do not allow for aerial refueling, will be extremely challenging to meet with a jet-powered aircraft. According to Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), aerial refueling will be considered as a potential growth capability.

The Navy key performance parameters call for a carrier to deploy enough UCLASS aircraft to maintain two orbits about 600 nautical miles distance from the ship, or maintain a single orbit at a range of 1,200 nautical miles. If the UCLASS were called on to conduct a light strike mission, it could attack lightly defended targets at a distance of 2,000 nautical miles.

Meanwhile, the Navy is gearing up to restart flight operations with its Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Air Combat System-Demonstrator at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. A new set of carrier flights could start again as early as mid-November, sources have told USNI News.