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by Kris Osborn

Carrier-launched drone hangs in the balance of an ongoing Pentagon review aimed at better solidifying the direction for the emerging platform

A Pentagon intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, review is currently exploring the scope and range of desired attributes for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Aircraft Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS.

The merits of the UCLASS platform are clear; it will give the Navy much greater at-sea, long-dwell ISR technology and allow the service to conduct extended maritime surveillance drone missions without having to secure permission to launch or land an aircraft from a host country.

In addition, it could bring the prospect of having an armed, stealthy drone able to move over enemy territory, evade tracking technologies and air defenses long enough to deliver precision strike weapons on specific targets.  

The thrust of the examination focuses on how stealthy the new first-of-its kind carrier-launched drone needs to be, how much of a weapons payload it will be configured to carry and deliver and how far it will be engineered to fly with and without aerial refueling.

Rear Admiral Robert Girrier, Director of Unmanned Warfare Systems, did not wish to address specifics of the ongoing review but did recently tell reporters the drone will be an “evolutionary” platform that will bring great value to the sea service.

Some advocates for the program have suggested that an evolutionary platform could integrate new technologies, weapons and mission possibilities as they emerge, potentially adding weapons and stealth properties over time. Others have said certain stealth technologies and aircraft mission configurations would need to be built-in from the beginning in order to achieve the desired range of attributes.

The ongoing strategic portfolio review is being co-led by the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, defense officials explained.

The Navy had planned to launch a competition among vendors to build the UCLASS through the release of what’s called a Request for Proposal, or RFP, last year.

However, concerns from lawmakers, analysts and some Pentagon leaders resulted in a substantial delay for the competition in order to allow time for a formal review of needed requirements for the platform.

Aerial refueling technology is central to the debates about UCLASS because, if the drone is configured to travel extremely long-distances without needing to be refueled, that affects the size, shape and contours of the body of the aircraft due to the need to engineer a larger fuel tank, analysts have said.  A larger fuel tank can impact the design of the drone and affect its stealth properties by changing the radar cross-section of the aircraft.

Some design proposals for UCLASS would make the drone less stealthy and less able to carry a larger weapons payload – yet be able to travel very long distances as an ISR platform. Other proposals focus more on stealth and weapons payload. These questions are currently informing the ongoing review. 

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Some proponents of a stealthy platform maintained that stealth configurations needed to be engineered into the platform design at the inception of the program and not be incrementally applied.  They stressed that the first-of-its kind carrier-launched platform should be weaponized and stealthy enough to elude more sophisticated enemy air-defenses.

If UCLASS were designed for maximum stealth and weapons-carrying potential from its inception, engineers would most likely envision an aircraft with a comparatively smaller or differently shaped fuel tank in order to lower the radar cross-section of the aircraft. A differently-configured fuel tank might result in the need for more aerial refueling as a way to extend the aircraft’s range and ensure long-endurance ISR, analysts have explained.

The Navy has already demonstrated aerial refueling on its carrier-launched demonstrator aircraft, the X-47B.

Also, the X-47B has successfully demonstrated carrier launches and take-off on a number of occasions, Navy officials explained. Engineering a drone to integrate with the carrier air wing and successfully land on a manuevering aircraft carrier is quite an accomplishment for the service; the drone must be able to account for the wind speed, weather and atmospheric conditions, sea conditions and movement of the aircraft carrier. Progress thus far with the demonstrator aircraft has raised Navy hopes for the future of the UCLASS platform.

Meanwhile, concerning the future of UCLASS, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, has consistently argued for a stealthy, long-range strike platform able to elude sophisticated enemy air defenses and deliver weapons over hostile or what’s called “contested” areas.

He was among those expressing concern that the Navy’s initial RFP was interested in pursuing a “semi-stealthy, lightly-armed” aircraft which, in his view, was setting the bar too low and therefore not sufficiently suited to meet the full range of desired requirements for UCLASS.

As a result, Forbes has been a strong voice and leading proponent of efforts to shape new requirements for UCLASS designed to accommodate these capabilities.  In fact, the ongoing Pentagon review of the system’s requirements was mandated by his subcommittee in the 2015 defense authorization law.

“In order for the carrier to meet its full potential as a power-projection instrument, its air wing must include aircraft that can launch and recover from beyond the reach of prospective adversaries' sea-denial capabilities and penetrate sophisticated air defenses with a load of sensors and weapons,” Forbes wrote in an OPED in Defense News.

In the essay, Forbes articulates his sought-after vision for the UCLASS platform, saying the unmanned platform will need a greater combat radius than the potential threats they may face and must have a greater range than manned carrier fighters can achieve. In addition, Forbes stresses the need for “air refueling capability, broadband stealth and a sizable internal payload.”

Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has also said the Navy’s UCLASS carrier-launched drone needs to be stealthier and more lethal than previously planned, adding his voice to a chorus of concern that the Navy’s mission plans for the first-of-its-kind platform were too narrowly configured.

In March of this year, McCain sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking that the UCLASS drone be configured to carry a weapons payload for strike missions, be stealthy enough to elude enemy detection systems in high-threat areas and also perform long-range ISR missions. 

McCain called current or existing plans to engineer a platform narrowly configured for purely long-range ISR “strategically misguided.”

“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,” McCain writes in the letter to Carter.  

In 2013, the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million for preliminary design review for the UCLASS to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.