June 18, 2013 9:54 AM - Updated: March 24, 2014 9:59 AM
Northrop Grumman's X-47B flies over USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) on May 14, 2013. US Naval Institute Photo
Northrop Grumman’s X-47B flies over USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) on May 14, 2013. US Naval Institute Photo

The Navy is taking its next steps in creating unmanned and autonomous vehicle to provide surveillance and strike capabilities from aircraft carriers, Naval Air Systems Command told USNI News on Monday.

NAVAIR released a request for proposal to four companies on June 10 for further design studies on the Navy’s planned Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system.

The preliminary design review contract will provide funds for companies that responded to a 2012 Broad Area Announcement to further flesh out their design proposals ahead of a competition for a final airframe design to be held beginning in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2014, Jamie Cosgrove of NAVAIR told USNI News.

The PDR RFP was not announced publicly, though NAVAIR said a draft RFP in August and the final RFP in 2014 would be openly competed.

NAVAIR did not reveal the contract amounts awarded to each company.

UCLASS plans to provide carriers longer range surveillance and the ability to launch weapons from well beyond the range of current manned strike aircraft.

The companies — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman — have all previewed concepts of UCLASS and will compete to develop the airframe that will bring unmanned capability to carrier decks.

General Atomics would neither comment on the PDR contract award nor provide any details on their offering to the Navy. Previous reports have said the company would offer a maritime version of their jet-powered Avenger unmanned aerial vehicle.

Boeing — reported to be preparing a version of their Phantom Ray UAV — would not discuss details of the their offering but said in a statement, “Boeing will give the Navy a UCLASS platform that can provide a persistent [carrier]-based ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) and strike capability supporting 24/7 carrier operational coverage.”

Northrop and Lockheed did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Northrop’s X-47B is thought to be the company’s offering for the UCLASS competition. The X-47B is by far the best known of the bids for the UCLASS program as it is serving as NAVAIR’s test platform to prove that autonomous air systems can take off and land on a carrier. On May 14, the X-47B took off from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) and has since performed a series of so-called touch and gos on the carrier deck.

Lockheed is set to offer the Sea Ghost platform. Little is known about the aircraft. An April promotional video from the company’s secretive Skunk Works division indicated potential reuse of components of its F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter but provided little other substantive details.

The competition for the airframe will run in tandem with the Navy’s development of a common ground control station for the Navy’s unmanned aerial vehicle fleet. While better known UAVs — like the ubiquitous MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper — are flown by pilots in simulated cockpits, the Navy wants to operate its UAVs with a mouse and a keyboard having the crafts react to waypoint commands by operators rather than be directly controlled.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
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