Home » Aviation » Mabus: UCLASS Likely A Bridge to Autonomous Strike Aircraft, F/A-XX ‘Should be Unmanned’

Mabus: UCLASS Likely A Bridge to Autonomous Strike Aircraft, F/A-XX ‘Should be Unmanned’

An artist's concept of a proposed Lockheed Martin UCLASS design. Lockheed Martin Image

An artist’s concept of a proposed Lockheed Martin UCLASS design. Lockheed Martin Image

The Navy’s planned carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will help the service in a transition from manned strike aircraft to a future autonomous strike platform, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said on Wednesday.

While the final character of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) is still being developed, Mabus said whatever the outcome it would likely not possess the autonomous deep strike capability into contested areas the service ultimately will require.

“What we currently think it won’t be able to do is in the current [request for proposal] we’re looking at, is to do autonomous contested strike,” Mabus told reporters following an address at the U.S Naval Academy (USNA).
“What we’re looking at UCLASS is to be the bridge between manned systems and completely autonomous unmanned strike — which will be sometime in the 2020s — to develop that program using UCLASS to get us there.”

The final Navy requirements for UCLASS’ air segment are contingent upon the findings of a Department of Defense UAV strategic program review (SPR, pronounced spear), which will be finalized later this year.

UCLASS has been among the service’s most hotly debated acquisition programs in recent memory. The majority of the naval aviation establishment is pushing for a high endurance aircraft that would be primarily a carrier-based information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform with a light strike capability while some members in Congress and experts outside the Navy are pushing for a heavily armed stealthy penetrating strike aircraft.

An artist's conception of Boeing's UCLASS offering taken as part of the company's display at the U.S. Navy League 2015 Sea Air Space Exposition. US Naval Institute Photo

An artist’s conception of Boeing’s UCLASS offering taken as part of the company’s display at the U.S. Navy League 2015 Sea Air Space Exposition. US Naval Institute Photo

“UCLASS can do a lot of stuff we still don’t know everything it can do because we haven’t put out the RFP yet, we don’t know what exactly industry can give us,” Mabus said.
“But UCLASS can certainly do ISR, UCLASS can certainly do refueling, we just proved that.”

The Navy has plans to introduce UCLASS to the fleet by 2022 to 2023

While Mabus said UCLASS might not be the penetrating strike aircraft some advocates are hoping for, the Navy will ultimately need an autonomous strike platform.

“We have to moved to unmanned. That’s the future,” he said in response to a question from an USNA midshipman.
“Not just ISR, not just refueling but strike.”

Mabus did not specify if the autonomous deep strike capability would be developed in a program before the service’s planned Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement program — F/A-XX.

“I don’t know exactly what program it will fall under, but whatever F/A-XX looks like it should be unmanned,” he said.

Next year, the service will start the Analysis of Alternatives for F/A-XX in conjunction with the Air Force’s F-X program.

Last month, Mabus predicted the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) “almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly,” he said in address at the Navy League’s 2015 Sea-Air-Space Exposition.

In the same speech he announced the creation a new deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems and a new Navy staff position — alongside warfare directorates like surface and air warfare — N-99.

“Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas,” Mabus said in April.

  • sferrin

    F/A-XX unmanned? Yikes. Somebody please take the keyboard away from Mr. Mabus.

    • Rob C.

      I agree, He’s been a UCLASS booster for long time. Making a no manned combat air fleet gives me bad vibes.

    • AKO


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  • Frank Langham

    DEDICATED Land-Sea-Air Drone-Ops Platform

    Nobody is going to listen to this or agree but I strongly recommend that we acquire a DEDICATED Land-Sea-Air Drone-Ops Platform, in the form of an LHD Test & Development Bed. … I fully understand the budget issues and the lack of vision that cultural entrenchment imposes upon rapid and radical evolution of autonomously networked systems but I respectfully submit that there is an overwhelming host of operational cost, efficiency, and effectiveness synergies that could probably be best addressed by exposing the INEFFICIENCIES of the alternative, which is to mix manned operations with drone operations. … Men and drones can meet up and partner well, together, in the battle-space but when it comes to launch and recovery and maintenance and replenishment, the TRAFFIC and FACILITIES of manned systems, versus unmanned systems are most often, and in most modalities, mutually exclusive and incompatible, including the training, qualifications and the specific duties and operations of the associated support personnel. … To put it BLUNTLY, manned operations interfere with drone operations and drone operations interfere with manned operations, on base and aboard ship. … More to the point, recovery, taxi, triage, reloading, refueling, maintenance, repair storage and launch of unmanned systems is to be a rapidly evolving, automated “FACTORY ENVIRONMENT” … Imagine, for one moment, an LHA which is every bit as automated and efficient as a Japanese Automobile Manufacturing Facility. … Look at the SMx assembly line at Redstone Arsenal (Huntsville Alabama). … Furthermore, consider that technicians, more and more, will have a “Systems and Robotics” rating, as they, like SUBMARINE QUALIFIED technical personnel, will be cross-trained on all aspects of BOTH the unmanned LAND-SEA-AIR DRONES AND THEIR MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS (aboard ship) … In time, an LHD will be able to store UCAVS in racks and move them to various service stations on tracks or on tracked “mules” and they will be launched and recovered almost like a machine-gun or in pairs. … NO HUMANS means higher G-Forces can be tolerated in the launch and arrest apparatus and, so, the larger (longer) deck of a CVN is not required. … But we will never achieve any degree of efficiency in any reasonably practical period of development, if we do not (at the very least) provide ONE (just one) dedicated test and development bed for COMBINED Drone Ops. >> NOW << … The LHD is the perfect platform and we can start out with just a "gutted" hangar deck and minimal accoutrements. The value is to be able to allow DEFENSE INDUSTRY REPS, TECHS, and ENGINEERS to co-mingle with the NAVY'S BEST GENERAL ROBOTICS TECHS and to use this platform as a TECHNOLOGY INCUBATOR which will NOT BE ENCUMBERED BY MANNED OPERATIONS. … We want to develop a TRIAGE TRAFFIC FLOW … What happens to the UCAV after recovery ? … Where (exactly) does it go next ? (to crew-chief triage) and the TRIAGE CHIEF will inspect and test (via digital diagnostic and manual mechanical procedures) what repairs and maintenance are required and then either to storage or to reloading and refueling and re-queuing for re-launch. … ALL of these same considerations apply to the land and sea drones, which are serviced, launched and recovered from the ballasting loading dock (or roll-on-off) … But it should also be noted that these general technical-rated "robotics specialists" can be trained together and can be moved and re-assigned, depending upon the specific types of missions and ops that are underway, at any given time. … Any submarine qualified technician can open ANY technical manual and service ANY mechanized or computerized equipment, save, perhaps, for jet turbines.
    I hope this has been an adequately lucid expose' on what is needed and upon what is possible, as well as on what is WRONG with mixing manned and drone ops on the same platform. … Please give these considerations some deeper thought and visualize the possibilities of a FULLY automated LAND-SEA-AIR Drone Tender/Carrier Platform (and technical cross-training AND mixing DEFENSE INDUSTRY PERSONELL *WITH* NAVY PERSONNEL, aboard ship).

    • Rob C.

      You’ve been playing the old Micropose Command Carrier game too many times.

      • Frank Langham

        This is not science-fiction, nor is it some futuristic pipe-dream. In fact, the implementations and modalities which I have outlined above are OFF THE SHELF and are WELL TESTED and ECONOMICALLY VIABLE. … Again, LOOK AT ANY 1990s (DECADES OLD) Japanese Automobile Manufacturing Plant and you will > GET A CLUE < what is possible … AGAIN … Look at our STANDARD MISSILE ASSEMBLY PLANT, at Redstone Arsenal, in Huntsville AL. … This plant has just been completed and, YUP, is set up very much like a Japanese Manufacturing Plant. This is NOT some futuristic, Pie-in-the Sky, pipe-dream … This is tried-and-true, traditional automation and even Mac Donald's can make hamburgers better than we have been planning our drone ops. … to ignore the OBVIOUS, LOGICAL efficiencies that commercial processes have employed for MANY decades (since HENRY FORD's ASSEMBLY LINE, really) is far worse than hapless folly, it is WILLFUL IGNORANCE and it would be irresponsible and, indeed, incompetent to ignore the efficiencies that any factory or burger franchise see as fundamental to success.

  • Steve Skubinna

    “UCLASS can do a lot of stuff we still don’t know everything it can do
    because we haven’t put out the RFP yet, we don’t know what exactly
    industry can give us,”

    Well, that’s comforting. He doesn’t know what it can do, but he’s sure it will be unmanned. And really, really swell.

    Okay, SECNAV is a political appointee and as such doesn’t have to be a professional maritime strategist. But Mabus’s performance strongly stresses the “political” part. He has not so far demonstrated his chops, so what accounts for his opining on what future air combat platforms look like? Who died and made him Mahan?

    • sferrin

      “”UCLASS can do a lot of stuff we still don’t know everything it can do
      because we haven’t put out the RFP yet, we don’t know what exactly
      industry can give us,””

      Sounds like, “we need to pass it so we can find out what’s in it”. Seriously, where are they digging these people up?

  • Rob C.

    I don’t like this direction. They keep changing their minds or someone is zig-zagging around the topic. I know it’s political foot ball having american fighting soldiers out there on the battlefront. Soldiers get messed up by being in combat psychologically. having a drone fly out while our people are safe is political plus. I don’t think the technology really there yet. Personally, I’d rather see living people piloting IN a fighter plane. Aside from ethics problems, of sending robots to do our bidding with detachment. Technology can be compromised and possible taken over. Why heck do we want have a armed attack plane out there who could be hacked? Military in past has not been able keep up with certain things, were still using warfighting equipment that’s least generation old or older because it costs too much.

    I hope the UCLASS program doesn’t replace combat pilots, it will cost us in the long run.

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  • Secundius

    It sound like “Putting all your egg’s into one basket, again”. What happen when you find out the System is Seriously Flawed, and you need Pilots to man their Planes. Only to find You Don’t even have any Manned Planes to Fly…

  • James B.

    The F-35 is a beautiful demonstration of how the best radar and sensors money can by won’t make an aircraft lighter or faster, and they definitely won’t make it cheaper. As nice as a superlative sensor suite is, if it can be defeated, the F-35 becomes an underpowered pig.

    Future aircraft should not forfeit the advantages of speed or range from the start, but the way to do that is to make the aircraft as light as possible, and humans add lots of space and weight for increasingly limited returns.

    In a modern jet, the basic size and shape of the aircraft are determined by the placement of the cockpit, the airframe is G-limited to what a pilot can take, and the life-support and human-machine interface adds at least 1000lbs per person, probably more.

    • Secundius

      @ James B.

      Just exactly how does the GE/RR F-136 @ >50,000-lbs/st. make the F/AV-35B as “Pig”…

      • James B.

        I don’t have numbers for the STOVL F-35B, but the USAF says the F-35A has 43000lbs of thrust on a 700000lb aircraft (.61 thrust/wt). The F-16 has only 27k thrust, but only weighs 37k, so .72 thrust/wt. There is no way around being an overweight/underpowered design.

        There is already a program to upgrade the F-35 engines because they are not powerful enough, and the F-35 hasn’t even fielded yet.

        • Secundius

          @ James B.

          That was for the F135 engines, new upgrades are for the F136 engines…

          • James B.

            Even an engine with 50000 lbs of thrust would only bring the ratio up to .71. For weight comparison, the F-35A is listed as ~70k lbs, an F-15E is only 68k.

            F-15Es claim better statistics in every category than the F-35, speed, range, altitude, and they have the space in the nose to carry as big a radar as you would want. I’m actually a little surprised how poorly the F-35 ranks against legacy fighters.

          • Secundius

            @ James B.

            I believe the F136 engine is going on the F/AV-35B model not F/A-35A/C models…

          • James B.

            My reading was that the F136 was cancelled in December 2011 after the Pentagon cut funding.

          • Secundius

            @ James B.

            My Bad, Didn’t see that one. But Pratt & Whitney developing F135-PW-600 for the F/AV-35B’s. No stat’s on the Model, similar in size to the F135-PW-400 model…

          • sferrin

            Sorry to burst your bubble but most F-15Es are 81,000lbs on about 46,000lbs of thrust (most don’t have the -229s).

            The 68k figure is for the F-15C. Why don’t you quit while you’re. . .well, you’re not exactly covering yourself with glory, but you can always get worse.

          • James B.

            All my numbers are straight off the USAF Fact Files. If they are wrong, blame the USAF.

          • sferrin

            The F135 hit 50,000lbs thrust on the bench years ago.

        • sferrin

          Christ, your posts are almost painful to read.

  • VF84RIO

    We should assume that networks and automation are hackable with relatively low cost by adversaries. We should be putting resources behind jamming and defeating everyone else’s cheap technology and retain the ability to make decisions in the air on the spot. Lets take advantage of automation and unmanned systems where we can but let’s not depend on them exclusively when lives are at stake.

  • LigerFangz

    I doubt it. IMO hes putting too much of his faith into drones and autonomous systems.

  • magic3400

    What happens when your UCLASS get out classed by manned adversaries flying BFM the old fashioned way, with stick and rudder?

  • AKO


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  • Vijay Mehra

    OK…You can start with the ISR version, see how it works and go from there…Its not that HARD People !

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