Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said he would like to see the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program move forward soon, and he’d like to continue testing the X-47B Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicle demonstrator (UCAS-D) program in the mean time without giving an advantage to builder Northrop Grumman.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Mabus said the Navy has had a UCLASS request for proposals (RFP) ready to go for almost two years now, but “it’s been held up because of a look at overall ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] systems.”
The ISR review is a Defense Department-level initiative, but many in Congress, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), have said they want to see a greater emphasis on strike capability from the platform. McCain said the requirements so far focus on things like unrefueled endurance – important for ISR missions – rather than payload capacity for strike missions.
Mabus explained that ISR is “certainly one role” for UCLASS but not the only role.
“One of the reasons we’d like to go ahead and get the RFP out is that we’d like to find out what’s available out there in industry,” he said.
“We put certain key parameters in terms of endurance, in terms of stealth, in terms of payload, but we don’t know what industry, how far they can go in these. Payload is obviously strike.”
“We would like very much to get going on UCLASS,“ he said, but until the Navy can push out its RFP the service will continue working with UCAS-D.
“We are still testing UCAS, the X-47B. We’ve done air-to-air refueling now, we’ve done a lot of the things – we’ve shown you can move it around the deck, we’ve obviously shown it can take off and land from a carrier,” he said.
“The issue with it is how you continue to do that without giving one manufacturer just a huge advantage over what comes next. I think there are ways around it, but we’ve got to be careful not to give the people that made UCAS a huge advantage over what the next iteration is.”
In addition to Northrop, General Atomics, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have all said in the last year they intend to respond to the RfP for UCLASS.
Last month the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) included a $725 million provision in their version of the Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act bill that would extend X-47B testing and directed the Pentagon to develop two additional prototypes for carrier UAVs with an emphasis on strike.