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Navy Shifts Plans to Acquire a Tougher UCLASS

The X-47B

The X-47B on the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on Nov. 10, 2013. US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy appears to have shifted its position on the requirements for its next generation carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), Navy officials told USNI News.

Instead of developing the planned Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) to only conduct operations in uncontested airspace, the service will instead pursue a design that can be adapted over time to operating against higher threat levels.

“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],” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, Naval Air Systems Command’s (NAVAIR) program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons during an interview with USNI News on Nov. 10.
“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.”

Nor has the aerial refueling disappeared from the UCLASS requirements. “Air refueling provisions are still part of the requirements,” Winter said.

The Navy is open to suggestions from the four contenders on the UCLASS survivability requirements. The four potential contractors—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems—each have their own concepts on how to achieve the Navy’s “crawl, walk, run” growth path for the UCLASS low observability goals.

“Some are modular, some are fill, some are others, so there is a whole spectrum of traditional design growth paths,” Winter said. “We have to wait to see what industry proposes.”

The Navy’s immediate goal is to get at least some UCLASS aircraft onto the carrier deck as soon as possible. The top level requirements call for the a UCLASS system to operate two orbits at a tactically significant distance from a carrier at 24 hours a day for seven days a week and to provide a light strike capability, Winter said. At this point, those top-level requirements are “solid”.

“The plan here is to provide an early operational capability that will be verified and validated for a light strike permissive environment,” Winter said. “What we will ensure is that the design of the system does not preclude what we call capability growth to be able to operate in contested environments.”

The requirements and the acquisition strategy for the Navy’s first operational carrier-borne unmanned aircraft have been mired in controversy after the Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC)—lead by Adm. James Winnefeld—altered the requirements for the program during a Dec. 18, 2012 meeting. The revised requirements relaxed several key attributes for the aircraft, much to ire of those—including former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead — who favor an aircraft capable of performing the penetrating strike role.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congressional committees and some in industry are unhappy with the Navy’s decision to develop, build and field up to 24 UCLASS aircraft – enough to equip four carrier air wings – by fiscal year 2020, before a formal Milestone B decision to enter engineering and manufacturing development. However, the Navy’s shifting position might potentially change some minds.

Though the actual “warfighter” requirements have been finalized, the detailed technical specifications for the UCLASS have been delayed.

“That draft request for proposal is in the final approval stages of our senior leadership authorities,” Winter said on Nov. 7 during a press conference. “We anticipate that being released by the middle of December.”

The draft RFP had been anticipated for a September release—but was likely delayed because the Navy was taking another look at the UCLASS requirements and acquisitions strategy in wake of criticism.

Industry will have a chance to review the draft and offer feedback. “In that industry day, we’ll have conversions with the industry partners that have reviewed the draft RFP to answer their questions and understand their concerns and opportunities,” Winter said.

NAVAIR will then review and update the draft RFP with industry feedback and issue the final version of the document. After Navy leadership approves that new version of the document, the final RFP will be released in the second quarter of fiscal year 2014. “That’s the current timeline,” Winter said. “With that, we’ll go into our source selection activity to down-select to a single air vehicle vendor.”

A contact award is anticipated in the first quarter of fiscal year 2015, Winter said. “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.”

Currently, Winter said that the Navy only has a rough estimate of when the UCLASS will achieve its early operational capability. “Right now, we’re estimating 2019 to 2021,” Winter said.

Winter noted that the draft RFP is for the air vehicle segment only—the Navy is the lead systems integrator for the overall UCLASS effort.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are all hoping to secure contracts to build the UCLASS—which is one of the few new start programs anticipated in the near future. The four companies each received a $15 million fixed-price contract for a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) assessment for the UCLASS in August. The companies have largely spent their own money developing UCLASS concepts based on their own interpretations of the Navy’s requirements—which has caused some consternation especially after the JROC altered the programs requirements.

  • Taxpayer71

    Reference this statement: “The top level requirements call for the a UCLASS system to operate two orbits at a tactically significant distance from a carrier at 24 hours a day for seven days a week and to provide a light strike capability, Winter said. At this point, those top-level requirements are “solid”.

    The nation is investing $48 billion in the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force (MPRF): $35 billion for 122 P-8/Poseidon aircraft; and, $13B for 68 MQ-4C/TRITON. Add in O&S costs that reflect total life cycle cost of military personnel and the MPRF begins to look like a major investment/commitment.

    It would seem reasonable to expect that in wartime, fleet support would be the mission of the MPRF, in particular the MQ-4C which is optimized for ocean surveillance and operates at 60,000 ft for 30 hours without refueling. It also would seem reasonable that the MQ-4C could meet the Navy’s top level UCLASS requirement to provide two orbits at a tactically significant distance from a carrier at 24 hours a day for seven days a week. Perhaps the MQ-4C could be modified for aerial refueling to extend its time on station.

    The requirement for a capability to penetrate defended airspace for target acquisition, surveillance, and strike makes good sense as the basic requirement for a UCLASS system. Given the investment in the MPRF, ISR/ocean surveillance in support of the battlegroup is a poor top level requirements foundation for a $3.7B (FY14-20) major investment for the development and fielding of just an initial UCLASS system.

    • M&S

      The MQ-4C is going to top 150 million per airframe/MEP before they are through with MP-RTIP and the other Senior Spear goodies they want to give it as the U-2 retires.

      I agree that added station time as a function of AAR (automatic air to air refueling, combined video and DGPS, already tested on a T-33 surrogate through basket chases of up to 9ft swing) is a good idea, provided it can be done safely for height and airspeed behind a tanker like an F/A-18 whose wake turbulence over the straight wings of the Triton is dangerous.

      The only thing that matters when it comes to mission endurance is time on station -after- transit lags and here you have to understand that 30hrs minus 1,500nm each way from base at 300 knots is actually only 20hrs total.

      That’s not fleet recce support in the concept of the old recce dirigible. It’s not even a PBY @ Midway level (because there were a lot more Catalinas).

      Because of it’s cost and HDLD nature, I would fundamentally disagree that Triton is an overland penetrating platform.

      Just as I would argue that it is better to invest in first day cruise and a limited inventory of stealth assets and accept the manned penalty while saving costs on the UCAV to come in after and do the sustainment mission in OBAS/BAI ‘Kill Box’ roles where you are not so critically dependent on masses of KC-46 to keep a constant rotation of strike aircraft, ‘both pylons today!’ equipped with a very few weapons.

      Brimstone, AASM, SDB and Griffin all point the way towards using multispectral seekers and lightweight, tailored blast, warheads from an airframe in which both combat bomb count and fueled persistence is concentrated rather than spread out throughout the entire airwing as an alpha strike.

      This in turn allows the airwing commander to have more freedom in adding sorties to the ATO without worry about pilot fatigue because the only manned asset he has in rotation is a pair of KFA-18 tankers passing fuel to UCAVs which are much closer to the X-45A than a CSA.

      In this, let me add one other thing: ISR, overland, is about CCD or Coherent Change Detection. Like hunting snakes in a maze within a darkened warehouse, you can either shine one very bright searchlight at every place you here a slither and hiss. Missing 90% of potential targets of interest. Or you can have multiple flashilights pointed at the feet of well armed troopers simply wait for the snakes to wriggle over your boots.

      In a realworld scenario, the maze would be the road networks and small towns whose utility to civilian insurgents is as vital as it is to military convoys (in that we don’t ambush civilian traffic) and the small spotlights are sensors like APY-8 Lynx and AAS-52B MTS. Neither of which are cheap (million apiece). Both of which are short range. But which, together, are only perhaps a tenth the price of an MP-RTIP radar.

      Which means you can have more flashlights at peoples feet and even shift them up and down the maze of roadways from 10-15nm standoffs looking for change in the background.

      Change which is recorded on cheap, mass video memory, using the same technology as flash USB sticks and compared with prior pass imagery to provide completely automated, onboard, pixel:pixel resolution analysis (Lynx is MMW and can denote changes down to 4-6″, enough to see boot tracks in snow, the electro-optical Multispectral Targeting System is actually better but only under clear weather).

      If a given target area of interest has been marked by mission planners as ‘high value’, it will get constant refresh and ANY change will be passed back up through satcomms for immediate human analysis. Others will only be annotated in the mission tape to be looked at in fast-forward, after the mission. Conserving bandwidth as the need for a BACN or ROBE type relay.

      What this means is that, if you have 20 small UCAVs on a carrier deck, you can maintain MUCH better coverage of a given, country wide, operations area than you can with 2-3 MQ-4s. And because that coverage is organic to a shipborne basing mode, it both keeps the carrier’s eyes open and can be sent anywhere in the world without having to negotiate base-in rights.

      The lag to bring in MQ-4s will be ruinous if a sudden fight develops in the Taiwan Straits, Korea or between Pakistan/India. It will also mean that if the carrier loses USAF overhead, it will have _zero_ ISTAR/RISTA targeting to get into the battle intelligently because we have given up dedicated recce assets as being organic to the fleet.

      The latter absence, by itself, makes the UCLASS an essential platform, IMO. It doesn’t have to have a huge bombload with SDB coming into inventory: 2,000lbs = four shots. But it must be able to perform long-dwell targeting. Because wars happen where people live not in sea lanes through which they send ships in passing.

      MPRF is too high value to be risked overland, even if we had the numbers to matter, and we don’t.

  • 2IDSGT

    Oops. Time for everyone to start over again. UCLASS-lite was already expected to cost ~$150 million per copy, so what’s this *EDI* wannabe gonna set us back now? Looks like IOC has already slipped by 2 years as well, not that it matters much. A 2020 timeline is still laughable.

    • M&S

      I consider an A-45A baseline to be more than adequate for mission testing of the UCAV concept from a naval deck. There are a lot of things we need to build confidence on, from JPALS and AAR to coordination via large pipe video links.
      We _do not need_ to go massively LO intensive in a platform which we intend to proof to a production level the baseline capabilities set.
      This is an A-4A becomes B/C/E evolution we are looking at here and if you have to, take a Senior Trend approach to hand-building the jets in a prototype shop environment. Just get the capability to the fleet and start flying it, hard. Twenty jets in four years from an FY16 funding start? Simple.
      Imagine an airframe which burns 1-2,000lbs/hr instead of 5-6,000lbs. Imagine never having to replace an airframe based on pilot fatigue but rather simply a monitored condition state for consumables like engine oil.
      Imagine how that changes your ability to keep the ATO open ended, plugging in missions as they are needed rather than on a fixed rotational basis.
      What people are having a hard time getting their minds wrapped around is how -manned- tasking is going to have to change to support this uniquely expanded persistent presence capability.
      An early lot F/A-18E has 14,000lbs internal and potentially another 13,500lbs or so external in transferrable fuel. Sizing a UCAV to match that capability leaves you with a robotic A-6 or S-3.
      Why? Why would you want to do that if _keeping it small_ is key to sizing the airframe around an F124/125 or similar engine which is what buys you an 1,100nm range with 2-3hrs on station (original J-UCAS spec) on only 6-9,000lbs of internal fuel?
      Even once the Classic leaves the Fleet, the USN will have a plethora of early Hornets which are APG-73 and structurally incompatible with serious upgrades. They don’t -need- to make a new tanker. What they need is to have those tankers be available to service much longer ranging, stealth, first day of war, F-35s to win the contested air battle. And then act as motherships for a veritable flock of UCAVs that take over the persistent dwell recces and OBAS in support of ground operations.
      And that too is doable, if you extend the flying day for 16-18hrs at 1-2 jets every cycle of 4hrs to feed the UCAVs.
      It just doesn’t make sense, for cost or critically needed capability (with the passing of Outlaw Viking and Hunter, the USN has no organic overland recce capability which is a crippling shortcoming to correctly planned strike warfare, as well as COIN wombat hunting), to do it the other way around.

  • M&S

    They did the same thing with the A-12 and it was illegal from the start because you cannot buy in to a program, you cannot proceed without a contract to begin even the most basic of design studies and you certainly cannot begin without a MENS (Mission Elements Needs Study) and COEA (Cost vs. Operational Effectiveness Analysis) proofed spec which says: “This is our mission, this is our costs for doing that mission, this is what will happen if we don’t have the platform to do that mission.”

    As a basic underlining for how screwed up this has a chance to be:

    A basic GBU-24, 2,400lb laser guided bomb is about 36″ across and 14.5ft long. Sans nose cape and end fairings, that’s about the same as a 300 gallon tank off an A-6 or S-3. Three hundred gallons at 6.8 = 2,040;lbs. A BRU-61 SMER with 4X GBU-39 or GBU-53 at around 285lbs each is about 1,650lbs overall.

    So you have a variance of 1,000lbs per bay and 2,000lbs per airframe between top end penetrating strike and low end standoff DEAD cleanup as COIN-CAS.

    I would not recommend going lower than a 15 foot weapons bay and 36″ clearance because that is also, roughly, the size metric for an AGM-88 HARM which the USN presently _CANNOT CARRY INTERNALLY_ on any present or planned airframe (Though pictures of the X-47B have shown mockups of HARM with it’s definitive tail fin geometry) peaking out from behind the bay doors.

    If you don’t have internal, powered, SEAD you had better have very good stealth to survive the 2-5 minute flyout of glide munitions like GBU-39 because the drag and signature penalty of an external carriage will severely compromise the airwing’s ability to penetrate.

    Why is a thousand pounds important? Because it dictates engine class and engine class dictated not just overall payload but profile ceiling and cruise Mach. Any jet which can hang a tank can sling a buddy store and theoretically be a refueler. But if you have a small jet with limited internal volume, you have to have large external stores options (the A-12 could carry 2 300 gallon tanks but ended up completely redesigning to a ‘fat wing’ standard to get it’s required 850nm radius) to have sufficient transferrable fuel _at radius_ to be useful. If the jets are coming out of the target terminal area at 1,200nm, you cannot afford to stage refueling through midway points because the time and fuel necessary to push the whale forward will deny you the rotational cycle to fly back to the carrier and then do the egress and recovery missions as well.

    Conversely, the farther forward you go, the less you can rely on external anything because you are increasingly at risk to extended range IAMD, be it J-11 or 20 or S-300/400 taking the pot shots.

    We could get away from the HARM requirement, simply by integrating a MALD screen (hounds before the hunters) with terminal seekers and datalinks like a Delilah. Or by shifting to weapons like CUDA which remove the warhead and compress the MEMS seeker into the radome so that the motor goes all the way up the missile. Such weapons could be packaged into either EWP encapsulate pods or in tandem within F-35C bays to provide decent shot redundancy in a small force of stealthy first day of war platforms.

    If a target needs a penetrator hit, go with a JASSM or Tomahawk with BROACH or similar. There are so few of this class of target which matter (won’t be emptied weeks before the war) that sending out waves of cruise missiles which have 900nm reach and one-way mission evolution lag on restrike sortie generation makes much more sense.

    Which only leaves the SEAD cleanup mission and the COIN-CAS alternative.

    If you bring non-LO airframes to an active seeker S2A fight, you create condtions where entire formations can be engaged by 2-3 9M96 or 40N6 each before even a powered SEAD weapon can be slung home to interrupt the prelaunch tracking as indeed, network radars allow for ‘silent site’ SAMbush without any telltale illumination.

    But where a 5 gallon can of SWAM being applied to an Operation Granby Tornado took two men to carry between them, the weight cost of both the coating and the other structural prerequistes (sawtooth shaping on a flying wing) and systems adaptation (internal ECS cooling sinks) to maintain overall LO signatures control is enormous and a large part of the reason why the ‘50,000lb class’ F-22 is closer to 70 when it takes off.

    This is not something which can be modularized or applied as a secondary treatment, it has to be a done deal from clean sheet of paper onwards as weight and payload vs. size accomodations are made from the start.

    And especially in a marine environment, it is _not maintenance friendly_.

    The last man to ask for ‘1,000/1,000/1,000’ improvements across the board in aeros design irrespective of costs from an industry increasingly working in wood thanks to materials shortages ended up on the loser’s side of WWII. He was disappointed for want of the technology base being a ladder rung shorter than his grasp without understanding that keeping the mission focus narrow is the key to maintaining relevancy of the possible for the design teams.

    So that the tech base can advance incrementally.

    Pretending that ‘system X must do everything because I can’t afford another for 20 more years’ is not only part and parcel to what has destroyed the generational innovation of our military industrial base but is asking for Apps level downloadable performance from an Apple II+ baseline architecture, even if you do get it to service quickly. If you are that cheap, then switch to all-missile systems like Hoplite at a couple million each and pick your fights a lot more carefully in expending them.

    Operationally, the reality becomes one of seeing a reversal of some, presumptive, UCAV/Manned roles.

    F-35s will have to do the ‘dangerous’ missions with non-LO, low payload threshold, UCLASS as backup SOM slingers in the cleanup role (TELs and Command Vehicles etc.) during initial fored entry IAMD/ICD suppression missions.

    And then, with the securing of dominant airspace control then can be tasked to the followon OBAS/BAI lockdown missions where you don’t have a bottleneck at the tanker and SCARs scurrying about on burner looking for valid targets to drop bombs on. Because the loiter of a properly designed unmanned asset is enormously leveraged over a true fighter. And it really doesn’t take many hair-teeth-and-eyeballs examples to cause your typical Libyan, Syrian, Taliban or Serbian to abandon high signature vehicles holding fixed positions or attempting desultory ambush attack.

    Wherein a much lower payload threshold equates to a much smaller engine class and a much smaller, lighter, airframe with which it is vastly easier ability to sustain in an orbit at say 1,100nm for 2-3hrs without sucking dry the (manned) tanker capability which is retained in the older F/A-18E, pre lot.26, community. If you are hauling 4X 480 gallon tanks and 14,000lbs internal to transfer with, you are big jet and thus adding the manned penalty is not that big a deal.

    Instead, what I see in a UCAV is something like a long range Skyhawk or SLUF with internal carriage of a 2,000lb class bomb load (for drag reasons) rather than a replacement Stealthy CSA.

    In terms of program economics, getting an early production lot model into service to build confidence in it’s mission utility is not a bad idea at all. But it must be remembered that when we were doing this quite a bit as we built the jet technology base through the 1950s, we were also doing so with a mix of fairly low value platforms like the Pirate, Fury, Cutlass, Demon, Cougar and Skyray, leavened with a few specialist platforms like the Savage, Skywarrior, Intruder and Vigilante for the specific nuclear strike role.

    We did not attempt an all-doing approach and it was only with the intro of the A-4/F-4/A-6 that we began a series developmental lineage approach that would lead to a standardized airwing for Vietnam.

    We are perhaps at the same point with the UCAV in that we need to have an ability to experiment with before we go refining specific capabilities into higher levels of followon.