Home » Aviation » SASC Markup Adds $725 Million for 2 New Carrier UAV Prototypes, More X-47B Testing


SASC Markup Adds $725 Million for 2 New Carrier UAV Prototypes, More X-47B Testing

Northrop Grumman X-47B Salty Dog 502 during carrier tests in 2014. US Naval Institute Photo

Northrop Grumman X-47B Salty Dog 502 during carrier tests in 2014. US Naval Institute Photo

The Senate Armed Services Committee — concerned with the Navy’s direction for its planned unmanned carrier aircraft program — wants the Pentagon to oversee development of two new carrier capable prototype unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and restart testing of the service’s two Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) in a combined $725 million effort, according to a summary of the SASC’s markup of the Fiscal Year 2016 defense authorization bill released Thursday evening.

The SASC bill reflects ongoing sentiments from legislators in both the House and Senate that oppose the Navy’s development of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Strike and Surveillance (UCLASS) that would have limited ability to extend the lethal range of U.S. carrier air wings into defended enemy airspace and act primarily as an information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform for the carrier strike group.

In a March letter, SASC chairman Sen. John McCain told Secretary of Defense Ash Carter “developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily an ISR platform and unable to operate effectively in medium- to high –level threat environments would be operationally and strategically misguided.”

According to the summary, “the bill includes $375.0 million for competitive prototyping of at least two follow-on air systems that move toward a UCLASS program capable of long-range strike in a contested environment.”

Measures in the bill would allow the Navy to continue developing its own self-directed version of UCLASS — using $134.7 million in excess development funds obligated in 2015. Development of the UCLASS air-segment has been paused due to an ongoing Pentagon wide UAV strategic program review (SPR, pronounced spear) inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and overseen by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work.

The additional testing and prototyping authority proposed in the SASC bill would give (OSD) more control in shaping UCLASS into a more lethal strike platform in line with the original strategic vision for carrier UAVs, outlined in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, USNI News understands.

The summary said the bill “expresses concern that the Navy’s current requirements for the UCLASS program place disproportionate emphasis on unrefueled endurance to provide organic ISR support to the carrier strike group. The bill recognizes the potential of integrating unmanned combat aircraft in the carrier air wing.”

In parallel to the prototyping effort, the SASC bill gives OSD $350 million “to continue technology maturation and risk reduction with the existing UCAS-D vehicles that will benefit UCLASS and other unmanned aerial systems programs,” read the summary.

That part of the SASC’s bill would restart flights of Salty Dog 501 and Salty Dog 502 — the pair of X-47Bs that successfully proved an UAV could conduct a safe autonomous landing on an aircraft carrier in 2013.

X-47B taking on fuel from a tanker on April 22, 2015. US Navy Photo

X-47B taking on fuel from a tanker on April 22, 2015. US Navy Photo

Following a successful autonomous aerial refueling test in April, the two X-47Bs are slated to become museum pieces because the aircraft are not representative of the Navy’s own vision for UCLASS — now officially designated RAQ-25A, according to a May report in Seapower.

“From a X-47 perspective, I don’t see the [UCLASS] tie, necessarily,” Capt. B.V. Duarte, program manager of NAVAIR’s PMA-268 that oversees UCAS-D and the Navy’s planned Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) programs, told USNI News in April.

“Given the differences between the X-47 and the UCLASS and the amount of money it would take to make it a more useful risk reduction platform, [it would be cost prohibitive].”

Reached Thursday, a spokeswoman for the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s for Research, Development and Acquisition (RDA) said the service does not comment on pending legislation.

A spokeswoman from Naval Air Systems Command — the arm of the Navy that runs the ongoing developing of UCLASS and oversees the testing of the X-47B — did not immediately respond to a Thursday request for comment from USNI News on the SASC proposal.

In a Thursday statement to USNI News, Rep Randy Forbes (R-Va.) — chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces and vocal supporter of a stealthy, more heavily armed UCLASS and additional X-47B testing —praised the move from the SASC.

“Both Congressional Armed Services Committees have expressed their strong belief that our Navy needs a long-range, penetrating carrier strike aircraft and that it needs to start developing it now,” Forbes said.
“It is our shared responsibility to maintain a Navy, and that entails promoting the development and fielding of disruptive technologies that will sustain its competitive edge. I am pleased that both the House and Senate are united in this purpose.”

The SASC version of the authorization bill still needs to move through the full Senate and be combined with the final House version in conference and is far from final.

However, there has been little to no expressed legislative opposition to Forbes’ and McCain’s stances on either UCLASS or additional X-47B testing.

Under its current schedule, the Navy plans to field UCLASS by 2022 or 2023.

  • Ctrot

    Given the LCS debacle I can’t muster a lot of trust in the Navy in taking the right path on UCLASS, but then I don’t have much trust in Congress making the right choices there either.

    • ed2291

      Very well said!

    • sferrin

      So let’s do nothing. That will surely lead to success.

  • Secundius

    We already know, that they can’t do much of anything. So, what does sinking another $725-Million USD. going too show US…

  • NavySubNuke

    As long as these systems require either LOS or satellite comms to be able to fly their missions and return they are nothing but a waste of time and money. We need to focus on either secure and dependable comms or putting in enough intelligence that it can’t be hijacked. The flight side can follow after that.

  • Question…why pay anything for prototypes. Let the contractors have a hourse in the race and spend their and their stockholders $$$$ on fielding, in the case, unmanned aircraft. Let the better contract win, oh yea like the F35 and F22 could have been F21 fly offs. When did this we pay for prototypes all come about? Ike was correct the military industrial complex will make us a second rate nation sooner than latter…not because of the technology but because of the inordinate amount of up front money the government spends for what could have, may have, and almost have, equipment. Yea and also order it and built it and then make so many changes the thing is almost a new thing with cost over runs. Examples being; F35’s, LCR’s, V22’s, Ford Class carriers and their systems, are just a few. Also add to the F35 that helmet at the cost of 400K per unit and still will not more. Damm the gigabites and more code, full speed ahead, keep your fingers moving and add up the costs. Question again …are contractors like lawyers padding the expenses, who knows. MMCS(SW)(SS) USN Ret.

    • Secundius

      @ Ken Badoian.

      The F-21 is an Israeli Fighter! Your probably thinking of the Northrop F-23 Black Widow…

      • Thanks…well I goty the Fand 2 right.

        Ken

        • Secundius

          @ Ken Badoian.

          Depends on which part of the Clann. The Loudmouth or the Strong Arm…

    • sferrin

      Holy balls. Please tell me your post is meant as a joke.

  • James B.

    Congress insists that we should build an expensive strike UAV, but we fly far more hours on ISR missions, which could be more easily offloaded onto cheaper UAVs and save the wings of our Super Hornets.

    It almost sounds like Congress is trying to maximize the dollars spent, rather than maximize capability gained.

    • Secundius

      @ James B.

      Finger’s in the Cookie Jar, Sir. Finger’s in the Cookie Jar…

    • sferrin

      You unwittingly answered your own question. Any platform can do ISR. Not any platform can perform long range (as in A-6 range) type strike against heavily defended targets. Thus, we need to develop X-47B class UCAVs. And those don’t grow on trees like the stick-and-prop designs that litter the market for ISR.

      • James B.

        Sure, any platform can, but some are very inefficient at it. Using a Super Hornet to fly basic surveillance missions is eating up flight hours and traps on the airframe, and burns much more gas than an ISR-focused drone like the MQ-1.

        Between operating cost and wear on the airframe, a Super Hornet costs at least $30,000 per hour to fly. A strike-oriented UCLASS would cost less, but still a bundle compared to a MQ-1 Predator. Modifying MQ-1s for carrier operations would save 10-20 Super Hornet hours per fly day, and the Predators are so light that all it would only take basic tailhook and folding or removable wings.

        The trouble with leaping straight to deep strike is that it is hard, and we would go through several generations of over-priced and under-capable drones before our AI and comms were truly capable.

        • Secundius

          @ James B.

          The MQ-1 isn’t going to work, even with modifications on a Aircraft Carrier Flight. Landing Gear is to “weak” for Carrier Borne Operations, Lower Vertical Stabilizers (Tail Rudders) will Shear-Off on landing approaches. And generally not compatible with the X, Y, Z motion of a Carrier’s Flight Deck. I’d be surprised if ANY current Drone with Conventional Landing Gear would work, other than the UCLASS…

          • James B.

            It isn’t exactly designed for conventional CV ops, but at a MTOW of 2250lbs and a stall speed below 60kts, there are lots of alternative solutions that could be used. The beauty of a Predator is an on-station time far longer than any carrier aircraft.

          • Secundius

            @ James. B.

            I took in account the Predator’s ~60mph stall speed. But with the Carrier’s XYZ Rolling Motion, you going to RIP to two Ventral Vertical Stabilizers (Rudder’s) right of the Airftame…

          • James B.

            For a regular deck landing, yes, but they could either use the crash barricade as a large net (like they did for Pioneer UAVs, but bigger), or try an airborne grab with a helicopter.

            Weight is the single biggest problem with carrier aircraft designs, so building the lightest drone possible is essential. My biggest fear is that the UCLASS will become as large, complicated, and expensive as a manned jet, but with reduced capability.

          • Secundius

            @ James B.

            When they introduced the Angled Flight Deck, I think, but without absolute certainty that Crash Netting is still used anymore…

        • Jon

          X-47 already has 2x internal weapons bays, that haven’t been used in testing. The money has already been sunk, so why not use them as strike test platforms and squeeze every bit of juice out of them? Thus avoiding at least one generation of over-priced/under-capable drones?

          What it sounds like, is that they don’t want the Navy to concentrate solely on a long endurance, permissive environment only ISR platform. They also want them to be working on a strike capability…without which, are carriers are $10s of billions worth of doorstop. AFAIK, there’s nothing else in development to give the Navy a long range strike capability. God knows its not the F-35.

          I can get that…

          • James B.

            I’m fine with the X-47B being used as a test platform, but knowing the military, they will see weaknesses in the tests as a reason for another gold-plated, super-joint, cluster of a design, because small advances and incremental improvements don’t give senior officers the great FITREP bullets.

          • Jon

            Which is probably why they were scrapping the X-47. From all outside appearances, it was wildly successful given its limited goals, and a comparatively dirt cheap program. Emphasis on cheap at less than $1 billion total program costs.

            UCLASS…is an example of what is undoubtedly going to turn into gold-plated cluster of a design. They want yet another Swiss Army Knife. If they want a pure ISR/Maritime surveillance bird, they’ve got the Global Hawk and Triton we’ve invested huge amounts of money into, complete with a tanker version. If the AF had Global Hawk, and the Navy wanted a carrier version, why’d they spend a fortune on land based Triton? For that matter, why do we have competing long range, long endurance ISR programs anyway?

            Meanwhile, they’ve got 2x X-47Bs, proven, carrier capable, paid for, with 2x weapons/equipment bays, 4,500 lbs payload, long legs, that can be refueled in-air. Why not use them and find out what the weaknesses are? It’ll be years before a UCLASS prototype gets off the ground.

            “Knowing the military”…personally, I’m in favor of forcibly retiring every military officer O-6 and above and starting over.

          • James B.

            I second your last suggestion. I’ve never met a stupid flag officer, but I’ve seen the ideas that groups of flags produce. Collective IQ must be inversely proportional to the number of Generals and Admirals involved.

          • Jon

            They’re the head trustees in the prison system they helped build. Get them in a herd, and group think takes over. Moo.

            I’ve actually met/briefed at least two, that were just eye-blinkingly stupid.

  • vincedc

    The airframe landed on a carrier, took off from a carrier and refueled in the air. Did the Senate happen to mention what exactly the Navy is supposed to test or are they just trying to add to Northrup Grumman’s earnings statement?