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Navy Docs Reveal UCLASS Minimum Ranges and Maximum Costs

Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77). George H.W. Bush on May 14, 2013. US Navy Photo

Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator flies near the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77). George H.W. Bush on May 14, 2013. US Navy Photo

The Navy aims to build a system of stealthy pilotless aircraft to patrol at a minimum range of 600 nautical miles around an aircraft carrier at a maximum cost of $150 million per orbit, according to May Navy requirements documents obtained by USNI News.

The Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) so-called key performance parameters (KPPs) outline an aircraft that will primarily fill information, reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting (ISRT) roles for the service’s carrier strike group with a limited ability to strike targets at a range of 2,000 nautical miles from the strike group in lightly contested environments, according to the documents.

The KPPs are the first concrete examples of the requirements for UCLASS — a program that the Navy wants to field by 2020. The document outlines the minimum requirements for the program ahead of a 2014 competition to field the autonomous aircraft onboard the carrier fleet.

The Navy would not comment on the KPPs specifically when contacted by USNI News but did provide broad outlines on the program with members of the Navy’s Office of the Chief of Naval Operations responsible for unmanned systems requirements.

“Our primary use for this asset is organic persistent ISR which the strike group doesn’t possess right now — especially at the range and speed that this thing will be able to execute,” Cmdr. Pete Yelle with OPNAV told USNI News on Monday.

The KPPs call for an aircraft that can field a 3,000 pounds worth of payload, including a 1,000 pounds of air-to-surface weapons — including the 500 pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Small Diameter Bomb II.

To compare, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet — the current manned carrier strike fighter — can carry almost 18,000 pounds of ordinance and external fuel.

“It certainly is not a B-52 sized bomb load. You’re only going to have a couple of weapons,” Capt. Chris Corgnati, branch head for the unmanned aerial systems requirements and resources in OPNAV.

In the surveillance role, the Navy wants an aircraft system that can fly, “two unrefueled orbits at 600 nautical miles or one unrefueled orbit at 1200 nautical miles,” according to requirements documents.

The unit cost for the aircrafts, less research and development and operations and maintenance cost (known as recurring flyaway cost), “required to conduct a 600 nautical mile persistent orbit shall not exceed $150 million,” read the UCLASS KPP.

Put into perspective, a single F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has a recurring flyaway cost of $66.9 million an aircraft, according to 2012 Navy budget documents.

Yelle and Corgnati both said the planned UCLASS would double the amount of time the carrier can have assets airborne.

“You normally have a 12 hour fly day with a 12 hour gap in airborne surveillance in the strike group,” Corgnati said.
“You can launch UCLASS at the end of your fly day and it can span that gap while your flight deck is shut down.”

Though the broad outlines of UCLASS have been set, the Navy is still working on a concept of operations (CONOPS) on which warfare communities will be responsible for flying the aircraft and who will process and analyze the information collected.

While the Navy develops the requirements for UCLASS, it has been testing the fundamentals of landing a carrier-based unmanned vehicle as part of the Unmanned Combat Air System Aircraft Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program.

In May, the UCAS-D successfully launched off of USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) and is scheduled to make its first landing in July or August, Navy officials told USNI News at the time.

As for UCLASS, four companies have come forward with tentative proposals for the aircraft.

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. The Navy plans to issue a open competition for UCLASS sometime in 2014.

This post has been updated to clarify the $150 million maximum cost per orbit for UCLASS does not mean each aircraft will cost a maximum of $150 million. The flyaway costs will pay for the capability for the system (one or multiple aircraft) to patrol 600 nautical miles from a carrier in a 24 hour period.

  • Jason Unwin

    Very interesting but how will it deal with the Anti Submarine Warfare mission? Surface ships could be viable targets but what about incoming aircraft and anti shipping cruise missiles? I think they are on the right track. Just need to start planning for “down the road”.

  • ErnestPayne

    Well this explains the rise in interest rates on new student loans. I hope the “piloting” of these missions doesn’t involve much higher education or the people controlling the drones will have to be hired from abroad.

  • James B.

    An MQ-9 Reaper (active, capable of 1000lbs of ordnance, etc) has a 14 hour station time and costs (per the USAF) $56.5 million for 4 aircraft and a control station (FY 2011 dollars) . Fit a tail hook to the design, and done.

    It would not be a perfect solution, but it would be cheaper and faster.

    • hokie_1997

      Slow speed would be the problem with Reaper-based solution.
      At a cruise speed of 170 knots, you can only go 7 x 170 = 1,190 nm before you have to turn around and come right back home. That doesn’t meet the stated requirement of operating a single unrefueled orbit at 1,200 nm.
      Max altitude would be a problem too. Props have a real hard time getting up and over the bad weather.

  • JR

    If we set-aside ‘flyaway cost’ for the moment, what will the ‘weapons system cost’ be once we move past ‘low rate initial production’?

  • Taxpayer71

    So what is the role of the P-8 and TRITON vis-a-vis UCASS in supporting a battle group? The successful UCASS technology program looks to be searching for a meaningful mission to justify an acquisition program, a normal program manager’s path to career success. However, if you buy the Navy’s justification for the P-8 and TRITON programs it is not clear why UCASS is required. Perhaps the carrier navy community isn’t convinced that the land-based P-8/TRITON will be available when needed.

    UCASS is supposed to have an ISR mission. Against what types of threats…. submarines, surface ships, aircraft, ballistic missiles, land threats? Inasmuch as UCASS is designed for stealth, the ISR suite would likely be limited to passive sensing systems such as FLIR/TV and SIGINT/ESM. When compared with P-8 and TRITON active and passive sensing capabilities UCASS appears to be a lightweight contributor with a high price tag.

    Time for Navy definition of ISR needs and an analysis of alternatives. Given current operational Navy and other sevice/national systems, and funded acquisition programs such as P-8 and TRITON what is the niche to be filled by UCASS and does it justify the cost of the program.

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