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Pentagon Reviews UCLASS Strike Capabilities

Congressional leaders have asked the defense secretary to review existing plans for the Navy’s carrier-launched drone program, expressing concerns that the written requirements are too narrowly configured and do not meet the threats and mission demands of the future.

As a result, the Defense Department’s Joint Requirement Oversight Council has launched a review of the program ahead of the Navy’s planned release of its Request for Proposals to industry.

The Navy plans to have the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone operational by 2020 and able to serve for decades to come.  Navy leaders expect UCLASS to fly long endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and strike missions.

However, lawmakers, analysts and even some members of the Navy have expressed concern that the program’s requirements focus disproportionately ISR missions and not enough on survivability and weapons capabilities.

The House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee mark-up language of the 2015 defense bill states that the Pentagon needs to rethink UCLASS requirements.

“The committee believes the Navy needs a long-range, survivable unmanned ISR-strike aircraft as an integral part of our carrier air wings as soon as possible. However, investing in a program today that does not adequately address the threat will only delay, and could preclude, investment in and fielding of the right system later,” the language states.

The mark-up requires the Secretary of Defense to examine UCLASS requirements and report his findings to the House defense committees by December 2014. In particular, the Congressional subcommittee maintains the current requirements will leave the platform ill-equipped for future threats and challenges.

In particular, low-observable or stealth specifications are needed to help the UCLASS evade increasingly sophisticated enemy air defenses and a broadly scoped payload or weapons delivery capability is needed to maximize its effectiveness for future engagements, lawmakers have said.. The UCLASS drone will need to overcome what the Pentagon refers to as anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD threats, meaning adversaries with increasingly sophisticated long-range missiles and air defenses, among other things.

“What you will have done is take enormous capability off the table if you go with the requirements that they are locking in now. What you will be locking into is something that is a little more than a high-class surveillance vehicle that will fly over our aircraft carriers for 20 to 30 years down the road. Many people feel we need to have something that is more integrated into the air wing if we are going to keep our carriers viable and if we are going to get through A2/AD defenses,” Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, told in an interview.

The Subcommittee language, which was adopted by the entire House and awaits conference with the Senate, specifies that the UCLASS will need to be able to operate in high-threat or “contested” environment.

The thrust of the debate centers around the platform can adapt over time or whether features like stealth and electronic attack need to be engineered into the original design at from the start. Forbes wants those capabilities from the beginning even though it will increase the drone’s initial price tag.

“These requirements will lock in payloads and other types of things, including potential stealth that you will never be able to go back and revisit,” Forbes added.

Navy officials said they could not comment on the proposed mark-up language, indicating they plan to wait for the results of the Congressional conference later this year, which will determine the final language of the defense bill.

Focusing more narrowly on ISR missions for the Navy restricts the technological ability of the platform and creates some redundancies as well, the Subcommittee states.

“The disproportionate emphasis in the requirements on unrefueled endurance to enable continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to the carrier strike group, a capability need presumably satisfied by the planned acquisition of 68 MQ-4C Tritons, would result in an aircraft with serious deficiencies in both survivability and internal weapons payload capacity and flexibility,” the language states.

While not willing to comment publically on plans for stealth or low-observability for UCLASS, Navy program officials have consistently maintained that the program’s requirements do call for a weaponized strike platform as well as an ISR vehicle.  However, the weapons capability is something that is described as incremental, meaning it will be engineered into the platform over time, Navy officials explained.

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.

The final Request For Proposal, which will be open to all vendors and competitors able to a produce a design that meets requirements for UCLASS, is expected later this month, Navy officials said.

Some vendors, such as Boeing, plan to propose a lower-cost platform which incrementally can achieve low-observable signatures through modular changes over time, according to a report in Aviation Week.

Lockheed and Northrop both plan to offer designs which have been engineered from the beginning as stealthy or low-observable.

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