It’s clear that the US Navy intends to buy a carrier-based unmanned aircraft able to conduct reconnaissance and, if needed, strike a target. But after years of deliberation among service officials, industry remains confused on the requirements for the system’s stealth and payload capabilities, company executives and experts said.
The Navy in 2010 first released a request for information for the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike aircraft, or UCLASS, but officials took years debating whether it wanted a revolutionary technology or something less risky. The competition finally kicked off last year when Boeing, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin were awarded contracts to develop preliminary designs.
Officials from all four manufacturers declined to comment on the record for this article. However, one industry insider involved in the program said that the Navy had altered UCLASS specifications throughout the preliminary design review stage.
“We’re looking forward to [a request for proposals] in the hope that it’s going to finally clarify the requirements, clarify what kind of schedule the Navy is expecting, and we’re also looking for some clarity in the source selection criteria. … Those are all question marks that have yet to be answered,” he said.
The Navy in March released a notice that a draft RFP was forthcoming, and industry officials predicted requirements would be in hand by the end of the month. In early April, Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the service’s programme executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, announced that it would be released later in the month but would not be publicly available.
“The [chief of naval operations] has approved his war fighter requirements, and those requirements are solid, and they’ve been solid since April 2013,” he said. “We have to flow those down into technical design requirements, and we’re ensuring that those technical design requirements are realistic, logical and affordable to provide the war fighting capability CNO has asked us to give him — and that’s two 24/7 … orbits from the aircraft carrier at a tactically significant range, providing ISR information and situational awareness back to the commander of the strike group.”
Winter stressed the difference between war fighter requirements — which are broader — and design requirements that will contain detailed technical information such as what radars the drone will need to carry. The Navy has been refining its design requirements throughout the preliminary design review, he acknowledged, but the draft RFP will contain finalized design requirements.
Companies were given draft specifications last September when the preliminary design review began. But in December, the Navy released an update that, in some places, was significantly different from the original copy, an industry source told National Defense.
“The issue that we’re trying to balance is there’s quite a bit of technical work that has gone into our baseline design, and altering that design in a significant way [means we] would have to go back and redo some of the work in some of the system areas,” the official said. With the requirements still not finalized, the team decided to continue developing their baseline UCLASS design while separately working through the specification changes in case they are incorporated in the RFP.
During the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference in April, Winter laid out some of UCLASS’s capabilities. The Navy will need enough systems to collect ISR continuously through means such as electro-optical and infrared cameras and signals intelligence, he said. It will have a “limited” ability to strike targets on the ground. UCLASS will also be able to refuel other aircraft and be refueled while in flight. The system would initially operate in uncontested environments, but would be able to be modified at a later time for use in contested airspace if needed, he said.