The start of a formal completion among vendors to build the Navy’s carrier-launched drone has been delayed until sometime in 2016 pending the results of an ongoing Pentagon review, Navy officials said.
The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS, is envisioned as a next-generation platform able to deliver maritime-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology along with weapons-strike capability.
The Navy had planned to issue a formal Request For Proposal, or RFP, by the end of July of last year, but questions from lawmakers and Pentagon officials about the platform’s requirements and mission scope wound up delaying the program.
Last summer, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and other top Pentagon officials met with the Navy as part of a larger meeting with all the services to discuss the Defense Department’s aviation portfolio. Following the results of this ongoing DoD portfolio review, the Navy will release a UCLASS RFP and formally begin the competition.
The concerns from critics prior to the delay were focused on whether the UCLASS drone was going to be engineered with sufficient stealth technology and become an integral part of the carrier air wing.
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.
The UCLASS would offer 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.
Last summer, 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.
A 10-month long selection process will follow the release of the RFP.
“The final RFP will be given to the four vendors. They will have 60-days to refine their proposals. At that time we will begin formal source selection and we will evaluate the proposals,” Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, Program Executive Officer, unmanned aviation and strike weapons said last summer.
The Navy’s carrier-based drone demonstrator, the X-47B, flew from a carrier in May and November of last year and is now working on streamlining carrier deck operations and maneuvers with manned aircraft.
The Navy launched and landed a carrier-based drone in rapid succession with an F/A-18 fighter jet as part of a series of joint manned and unmanned flight tests aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in August of last year off the coast of Norfolk, Va., service officials said.
After an eight minute flight, the X-47B executed an arrested landing, folded its wings and taxied out of the landing area before moving out of the way for an F/A-18 to land, Navy officials said.
Navy engineers worked on some slight modifications to the X-47B aircraft in order to allow it to both land and integrate in rapid succession with fixed-wing fighter jets.
– Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com