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Requirements Debate Continues to Delay UCLASS RFP

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An artist's concept of the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) from Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin Image

An artist’s concept of the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) from Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin Image

The Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) has pushed back the release of the draft Request for Proposals (RFP) for the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft because the service’s top leadership has not yet signed-off on those specifications.

“The draft RFP will be released in next few weeks,” wrote NAVAIR spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove in a Monday email to USNI News.

NAVAIR had originally hoped to release the draft RFP before the end of March for the Navy’s first fixed-wing, production unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to operate from a carrier deck, but sources inside the Navy say that the top leadership at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) is still arguing about if the service needs a highly capable UCLASS immediately or a more basic airframe that could be upgraded over time.

However, NAVAIR has been pushing to release the draft RFP to industry sooner rather than later.

“NAVAIR is pressing to release the UCLASS draft RFP, but CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] and SECNAV [Secretary of the Navy] sign-offs are needed before that can happen,” an industry source told USNI News.
“We expect to receive an update to the aircraft specifications along with the draft RFP.”

While NAVAIR’s PMA-268 UCLASS program office is confident that the service’s leaders will sign-off on the draft RFP, when that might happen is still unclear.

Industry teams have pushed back against developing a very capable UCLASS because such an aircraft would have significantly different specifications from the machines the four contractor teams have been developing under the program’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) phase. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical System Inc. are all working on UCLASS designs under PDR contracts.

Further, service sources say that a more capable UCLASS air vehicle would cost upwards of $100 million per aircraft versus a unit cost of $35 million to $50 million per jet as set forth under the PDR requirements.

Given the sheer expense of a high-end UCLASS, the service simply cannot afford such an aircraft in the current fiscal environment, a number of sources argue.

Some within NAVAIR advocate building a basic airframe to gain operational experience with flying a combat-capable unmanned aircraft from a carrier before embarking on a more ambitious project like a deep penetrating strike aircraft.

Theoretically, the air vehicle would be a modular component of the overall UCLASS system and therefore it should be comparatively simple to build a more capable follow-on aircraft later.

Rear Adm. Mat Winter, NAVAIR program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, told USNI News in a January interview that the top-level UCLASS requirements have remained fixed since the spring of last year but the detailed specifications have been refined.

The requirements, Winter said at the time, call for the UCLASS to be capable of providing the carrier with 24-hour persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage at “tactically significant” ranges and limited strike capabilities at mid- to long- ranges.

That vision for the program falls in line with a series of key performance parameters obtained by USNI News last year that called for an ISR platform that would operate off cycle — when the rest of the carrier air wing is off duty.

The UCLASS could also potentially act an aerial refueling tanker to take some of the burden off the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fleet.

  • Taxpayer71

    UCLASS ISR Requirement Challenged

    The US Navy has concluded that it has an unmet requirement that justifies an investment of at least $3.7 billion for the development and procurement of 6-24 UCLASS platforms. That requirement is for a carrier-based capability to provide 24-hour persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage at “tactically significant” ranges (600 nm) especially when the rest of the
    carrier air wing is off duty. Inasmuch as UCLASS is in the DOD FY 15 budget request, one can conclude that the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Requirements Oversight Council concur with the
    requirement.

    The DoD/JCS/Navy decision to fund UCLASS for ISR warrants some scrutiny.

    First, the UCLASS ISR suite will have to be optimized for performance against certain classes of threat. The foundation requirement for UCLASS appears to be 24 hour persistent ISR at tactically significant ranges (600 nm) from the carrier. One might conclude that the highest priority would be threats to the carrier, e.g. aircraft and missiles, suggesting a requirement for air surveillance radar.

    Second, the UCLASS architecture will offer the enemy an opportunity to target the carrier. The
    system architecture appears to require the carrier to maintain RF data link contact via satellite with UCLASS for vehicle and/or sensor control and sensor data receipt? The detection and location
    of the RF data link by the enemy would compromise the presence and location of the carrier.

    Third, the UCLASS platform is only one segment of the system required to perform the ISR mission.
    What is the total cost of the system installed on a carrier and how many sailors are required to operate the system and exploit the ISR data?

    Forth, what aspect of the carrier ISR requirement is not met by the $46.8 billion investment in the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force (MPRF) — $33.6 billion for 122 P-8 POSEIDON aircraft and $13.2 billion for 70 MQ-4A Triton. The P-8A Poseidon is a long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.
    The MQ-4C Triton is a forward deployed, land-based, autonomously operated system that provides a
    persistent maritime ISR capability.

    One might conclude that the organic carrier based ISR requirement reflects either an institutional distrust of the land-based MPRF; or, a requirement conjured up to justify the development and acquisition of a carrier-based unmanned aerial system that can evolve for missions that make sense such as aerial refueling; and, ISR, targeting and strike in contested airspace.

    Given the current fiscal environment, in which the Navy cannot fund the overhaul and refueling of the George Washington (CVN-73) or modernization of eleven Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the funding of UCLASS for ISR stands out like a sore thumb.

  • cdevboy

    100 million is ridiculous for essentially and upgraded drone. A drones’ objective is to go in harms way knowing that it has a high chance of being lost. Even at 50 million the cost is too high. after all it will require suites of specialized hardware based on mission type. All of this will add to the basic cost. I thought the main idea was to remove the man to save cost and lives. seems like we will end up with an expensive airframe that now won’t hold a pilot but cost nearly the same.

  • Taxpayer71

    Recommend Rosalyn Turner’s article “A New Kind of Drone War: UCAV vs UCLASS” in the April 2014 edition of The Strategist.

    http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/a-new-kind-of-drone-war-ucav-vs-uclass/