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Navy orders study on UCLASS concepts


The Navy wants an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft -- or UCLASS -- to fly off its carrier decks by 2018, and to that end it has awarded Boeing a contract to study just how it can get there, the aerospace company said Monday. Basically, from Boeing's announcement, it sounds as though the Navy wants to lay down as much groundwork as possible to prove that it'll be possible to take an aircraft, get it out to sea, on the cat, into the air and then trap it back on board.

From Boeing's announcement:

Boeing has received a $480,000 study contract from the U.S. Navy to support pre-Milestone A activities including development of a concept of operations, an analysis of alternatives, and an investigation of potential material solutions for the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program.

"The Navy wants UCLASS in the fleet in 2018," said Jimmy Dodd, vice president, Advanced Boeing Military Aircraft. "Boeing has been delivering carrier-based aircraft to the Navy since 1925. With Boeing's broad experience in unmanned systems and rapid prototyping, and nearly 90 years of carrier-based aircraft know-how, we are prepared to meet that schedule to support the mission and requirements the Navy establishes. This contract is the start of that."

The UCLASS system will consist of an air segment, a connectivity and control segment, a Carrier Vessel-Nuclear (CVN) segment (launch and recovery), and a systems support segment. The work on the eight-month contract, according to the Navy's Broad Agency Announcement, will conceptually demonstrate that a UCLASS system can provide a persistent CVN-based Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance and strike capability supporting carrier air wing operations in the 2018 time frame.

There are those who wear the Navy Wings of Gold -- and those who don't -- who believe it's more trouble than it's worth to try to teach an unmanned aircraft to catch an arresting wire on an aircraft carrier, at least with today's technology. You won't be able to recover your UAVs as often and as predictably as you can recover human pilots, one argument goes, so there's a good chance that if tomorrow's carriers sail with squadrons of UAVs, they'll come home missing several unlucky birds that had to try to land at night or in rough weather.

Nonsense, say UAV advocates: It's only a matter of math and physics before an unmanned aircraft can land on a carrier as well or better than a human pilot. And besides, in tomorrow's anti-access environments, when warships are going to need to keep ever-farther away from their targets, only UAVs will have the stealth, range, ability to loiter and other advantages that the Navy needs. In other words, boosters say, UAVs are the key to the future relevance of aircraft carriers. What Boeing's study will apparently investigate is how much of what each of these camps believes is right -- and how much is wrong.

Not only that, it sounds like Boeing will be charged with coming up with the initial concepts and doctrines for how a carrier could use its UAVs. This has the potential to be very interesting: Suppose tomorrow's carriers could use their UAVs to guard against the dreaded small-boat swarm attack, first watching for bad guys and then attacking them at range, if needed, while the ship kept safely away. Or imagine a carrier being able to keep UAVs in the air constantly searching for enemy submarines, saving human crews until they needed to drop a torpedo on the target. Of course the UAVs could well take that job, too.

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