The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) seeks to put on hold the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft program and directs the Pentagon to fund a study for a future carrier-borne unmanned strike aircraft, according to language in the HASC’s Seapower and Projections Forces Committee’s mark of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Bill.
The legislation would stop spending on the UCLASS program until the Secretary of Defense conducts a study — due to Congress at the end of the year — on, “requirements for a carrier-based [Unmanned Aerial System] to extend the [information, reconnaissance and surveillance] and precision strike reach of the carrier air wing in [anti-access/ area denial] threat environments projected for 2025-2035,” reads the bill.
The Navy’s FY 2015 budget submission included $403 million to develop the UCLASS program, which the service plans to field by 2020. If the bill is signed, ULCASS funds would be in limbo until the conclusion of the new study.
The bill also included harsh language — directed at the Navy — claiming the service did not comply with 2012 strategic guidance in the development of the current UCLASS concept.
“As planned, UCLASS appears unsupportive of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance for the United States to ‘maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged’,” read the bill.
According to Congressional sources, the many HASC Congressmen — including sea power chairman Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) — were not pleased with the requirements the Navy set forth for the program.
Instead of a stealthy deep penetrating strike aircraft that many in the national security establishment had called for, the Navy had instead tailored the requirements for the UCLASS to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over uncontested airspace with only a light secondary strike capability.
According to defense sources, one of the main reasons behind the decision to proceed with a more basic set of UCLASS requirements is the overarching need to eliminate terrorist threats in areas where the U.S. military may not have basing access.
“Operating from a host country gives [countries] the ability to put whatever restrictions they want on your operations. I’m talking about policy restrictions that they want you to follow,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, told USNI News in August. “In terms of policy there are a lot fewer restrictions from a seabase.”
The counter terrorism mission was central to an internal debate in the Pentagon over the eventual character of UCLASS.
“One school said, ‘We have already more than 800 aircraft, like [MQ-9] Reapers and [MQ-1] Predators, that can operate in non-contested airspace,’” Bob Work, the current nominee for deputy secretary of defense, told USNI News in August.
“What you don’t have is a lot of capability in stealthy type penetrators.”
Many in Congress and the defense establishment saw the focus on counter terrorism as shortsighted in the face of rising anti-access/area-denial threats (A2/AD), particularly in the Western Pacific.
“The committee believes that current UCLASS Air System Segment requirements will not address the emerging anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges to US power projection that originally motivated creation of the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) program during the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and which were reaffirmed in both the 2010 QDR and 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance,” reads the bill.
The HASC action is a major inflection point for the long and tortured saga of the UCLASS program that began more than a decade ago with a 2002 Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) effort called the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS).
During the 1990s, both the Air Force and Navy had their own separate unmanned aircraft projects underway.
The DARPA program was designed to demonstrate the technical feasibility of unmanned air systems for missions such as the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), electronic attack, precision strike and ISR in coordination with the U.S. Air Force and the Navy.
Boeing and Northrop Grumman were contracted to build demonstrator aircraft—the X-45 and X-47 respectively. Ultimately, DARPA hoped to perform an operational evaluation of the concept, but it was not to be.
The J-UCAS program was cancelled in 2006 after a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The QDR called for the Air Force to end its involvement in the J-UCAS program and focus instead on developing a new long-range stealth bomber. The Navy was directed to continue the restructured J-UCAS effort under the moniker Navy-Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS).
The 2006 QDR stated that the goal of the N-UCAS program was “to provide greater stand-off capability, to expand payload and launch options, and to increase naval reach and persistence.”
The N-UCAS program included provisions to demonstrate the feasibility of operating an unmanned aircraft from a carrier flight deck under a sub-program called the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D). Both Boeing’s X-45C and the Northrop’s X-47B competed to secure the UCAS-D prize, but ultimately the X-47B emerged victorious in August 2007.
In 2010, however, the Navy changed tack and launched the UCLASS program with a Request for Information (RFI) that the service issued on March 19, 2010. Even at the earliest stages of the UCLASS program, the requirements were a source of controversy.
While the RFI stated that the Navy was looking for a stealthy, carrier-launched unmanned jet airplane for long-range surface surveillance and strike missions, the document also paradoxically said that the new aircraft would be optimized for irregular and hybrid warfare scenarios.
“It really means we’re looking at a range of options for survivability, and it’s really bounded by how much we can afford to put into this platform,” Rear Adm. Terry Kraft, who was then the Navy’s director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, had told Defense News/C4ISR Journal at the time.
While in 2010 there was optimism that the RFI would quickly lead to a draft request for proposals (RFP) for an aircraft that would become operational in 2018, it did not turn out that way. It would take the Navy more than three years to finally issue a set of basic requirements for earliest stages of the UCLASS program—and that was after many twists and turns. Perhaps the biggest twist was a Dec. 19, 2012, mandate from Adm. James “Sandy” Winnefeld and the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) to focus the UCLASS primarily on permissive environment ISR and light strike.
When the Navy finally issued a RFP for a UCLASS preliminary design review (PDR) stage in June 2013, it was more than three years after the initial RFI.
The debate on the UCLASS requirements continued even after the Navy awarded UCLASS PDR contracts to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and General Atomics in August of that same year. Advocates for a deep penetrating unmanned carrier-based stealth bomber continue to press hard to modify the UCLASS specifications to allow operations inside high-threat environments.
By the time the draft RFP for the main body of the UCLASS program was issued to the contractors in April 2014, it was apparent those advocates had lost the fight.
The Navy would insist on pursuing a UCLASS only suited for operations over permissive airspace that would be operational by 2020.
For members of Congress who have long advocated for a more robust UCLASS, it was apparently the last straw.