The Navy's UCAS demonstrator made history as the first drone to take off and land from an aircraft carrier. Its proposed successor is called UCLASS.

The Navy’s UCAS demonstrator made history as the first drone to take off and land from an aircraft carrier.

WASHINGTON: August is the month of decision for UCLASS, the Navy’s controversial program to build armed drones that fly off aircraft carriers. At stake: whether the “Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance & Strike” aircraft will be primarily a scout (surveillance) or a bomber (strike). The new Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, delayed the Navy’s release of an official Request For Proposals (RFP) while he studied the question, with a crucial meeting in the new few weeks.

“UCLASS is one of our new starts, so we want to make sure we get the requirements right,” said Undersecretary Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, to reporters after a speech this morning. “The deputy secretary’s asked to take a look at it before we let the RFP out, and we’re going to do that.”

How hard a “look” will they take? The man who is simultaneously Congress’s leading champion of UCLASS and its leading critic has no confidence that Pentagon leadership will seriously challenge the Navy’s current requirements. “I do not have those signs that they are doing that,” said House seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes in a recent interview. “I have no reason to believe,” he told me, that the Pentagon is conducting a genuine “relook” rather than a pro forma exercise.

Forbes has championed UCLASS as a potential solution to the growing problem of “anti-access/area denial” defenses that could keep out conventional forces. He has sharply criticized the Navy’s plan for the program as falling far short of that potential.

“The question is, what is the mission that we’re going to need these platforms to perform?” Forbes told me. If UCLASS’s primary role is ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and the ability to strike targets is secondary, “then I think you can say they’re headed in the right direction,” he said. But the military has plenty of long-range surveillance aircraft already, he argues: the Navy alone is buying two new systems, the unmanned MQ-4C Triton and the manned P-8 Poseidon, although neither can fly off a carrier as UCLASS will. By contrast, only the twenty aging B-2 bombers have the combination of range, bombload, and stealth required to strike deep into well-defended airspace, and they lack the speed to escape if an enemy does detect them.

The current UCLASS requirements, however, prioritize ISR over penetrating advanced defenses. “The intent is to provide an an affordable, adaptable multi-INT platform that supports missions ranging from permissive counter-terrorism (CT) operations, to missions in low-end contested environments, to providing enabling capabilities for high-end denied operations, as well as supporting organic Naval missions,” said Mark Andress, the Navy’s “Assistant Deputy Chief of Operations for Information Dominance,” in a statement to Breaking Defense. Note the emphasis on UCLASS’s “enabling” and “supporting” role, especially in airspace where easy US access is “denied” by a “high-end” threat.

While stealth requirements are highly classified, payload and range are public: UCLASS must be able to conduct a 14-hour mission — either an ISR patrol or a 2,000-mile-plus strike — without refueling and while carrying at least a single 500-lb bomb, with a maximum internal bombload of at least 1,000 pounds. Compared to the carrier variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, this is about three times the range but only one-quarter the bombload.

A CSBA diagram shows the ranges needed to defeat a modern "anti-access/area denial" defense.

A CSBA diagram shows the ranges needed to defeat a modern “anti-access/area denial” defense.

14 Hours, 1,000 Pounds

14 hours’ endurance is a priority, Andress told Forbes’ subcommittee last month, because it is the most cost-effective, technologically doable option.  Cost “was a huge driver in the AOA [analysis of alternatives],” Andress said. An aircraft with 24 hours’ endurance was the most cost-effective to operate but potentially too big to fly off an aircraft carrier. (He didn’t specify why, but long range generally requires not only big fuel tanks but a big wingspan for fuel-efficient flight). A 14-hour aircraft was the biggest they could confidently fit on the carrier.

An 8-hour aircraft, by contrast, cost “dramatically” more to operate over its service life, he said, in fact “more than four times” as much. While Andress didn’t give much detail, the Navy wants the capability to keep at least one UCLASS on a surveillance patrol up to 1,200 miles from the carrier at all times. Doing that with an 8-hour UCLASS instead of a 14-hour one would require either buying more aircraft to keep up that 24-7 presence, having each aircraft take off and land more often (a major source of wear, tear, and accidents), or using aerial refueling tankers, themselves a expensive asset.

Of course, if you take away the requirement for 24-7 patrols and focus instead on the strike mission, those cost calculations would  all change. But it’s worth remembering that the United States military does not, in fact, spend most of its time blowing stuff up. Even in wartime, as the last 13 years have shown, commanders’ demands for ISR are insatiable: You have to know where the enemy is before you can bomb him or effectively avoid him. So there’s a reasonable argument that UCLASS needs to spend the majority of its time scouting for targets, not striking them.

Navy officials say the aircraft they envision will be able to do both — eventually. While a 1,000-pound internal bombload is the minimum or “threshold” requirement that UCLASS must meet on its entry into service, the requirements also call for the potential to carry more weapons as the aircraft is upgraded. “In fact, we have seen designs that carry considerably more than that 1,000 lbs,” said Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, the Navy’s senior uniformed acquisition official, although using all that capacity may reduce range. Even when it comes to stealth, which must be designed into an airframe from “day one,” Grosklags told Forbes’s subcommittee, “we know that there are technical solutions out there that provide us the capability to grow to a more survivable, low-observable platform if we decide to go down that path.”

Other witnesses were more skeptical. As a matter of physics, optimizing an aircraft for long-range, fuel-efficient flight inevitably compromises stealth, speed, and bombload, said Robert Martinage of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a former Navy official himself. Worse, it does so in ways that are built into the design and not easily upgraded away: “These reductions in survivability and payload cannot be bought back later.”

Industry and the Navy would disagree. They’re self-interested, of course, but then Martinage acknowledges he’s not seen the full requirements — which are classified — let alone the closely guarded competing designs. So neither side’s analysis is 100 percent reliable.


Frank Kendall

Incentivizing Performance

If UCLASS is to reach its full potential as a strike aircraft, the crucial question is whether industry will deliver a design that affordably exceeds the minimum requirements — either immediately or eventually once upgraded. Getting such good results is a chronic problem, because it requires not only good engineering but clever contracting.

“What the Department tends to do, when it writes requirements for a new program, is it writes down a list of objective requirements and a list of threshold requirements,” Under Sec. Kendall said in a speech on acquisition reform today. “In industry, what we routinely did was ignore that objective, because we knew we were going to be selected based on the cost of getting to the threshold …. The source selections didn’t give you any credit for getting beyond that.”

“In areas of performance where we care operationally about the result, [where] we just do better on the battlefield, we ought to give industry a reason to give us a better product, if they can do so cost-effectively,” he told the industry group AFCEA. “[So] what we’ve done on a few acquisitions — and we’re going to be doing more of these — is we’ve tried to define best value and define the difference between threshold-level performance and objective-level performance in dollars, so that you know what we’re willing to pay for the increased performance….It gives industry a reason to bid above the threshold, to give us more performance, to be innovative.”

Kendall wasn’t speaking specifically about UCLASS — that question came later — but about acquisition and “Better Buying Power” in general. Nevertheless, the approach he outlined might just be the only way to make an affordable surveillance drone evolve into a stealthy bomber.


  • Araya

    The actual Plans for the “UCLASS” looks like another MQ4 Triton (costly in peacetime and useless in War). Them they take a look on the entire US Navy so the biggest shortcomings are offensive firepower for me and not ISR so let’s be honest the largest part of the US surface fleet not even have Anti-ship Missile’s (2/3 of the DDG51 Fleet and all actual and future LCS and DDG1000). So the US Navy put all is ASUW eggs in the carrier basket or better said in is F18 E/F and future F35 Fleet what is already a bad strategy because why extremely inflexible. It looks what the navy continuing to suffer on what I called the COIN disease with other Words the Navy ignore real symmetric threats in order to deal with imaginary asymmetric threats. As consequence of this COIN madness the Navy has already waste billions for useless unarmed and not high sea capable crap like the LCS or also useless Unmade Airframes like the first generation of small MQ8 and the MQ-4C Triton how cannot carry weapons, is not stealthy, slow and vulnerable against any enemy how has a SAM System. So a Triton cost around 190 Million dollar each and this is the fly
    away price and nearly as much as a P8 Poseidon cost how is capable for ASUW and more important ASW Mission. So the first priority of the Navy is better ASW Capabilities, the second is ASUW Firepower and the third also more Firepower (deep penetration Capabilities against enemy IADS). The USA has said before already more them enough ISR. So instead of wasting Billions for a non-stealthy carrier based MQ4 the Navy should spend this billions for better ASW Capabilities (like better Sonar Systems) and ASW Weapons (like an improved VL-ASROC and a hard-kill defense system against enemy Torpedo’s) because why the biggest threat for the US carrier Fleet are not Chinese ASBMs, Cruise Missiles and definitely not Surface combatant’s but a growing Fleet of silent enemy Submarine’s.

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    • Clausewitz

      The vast majority of the US Navy’s surface fleet is armed, in most cases with the Harpoon AShM. Some of the Arleigh Burke-class are armed with the Harpoon whilst others are armed with SM-2, -3, -6 or Tomahawk. This is because DDG-51 is an important component of BMD and AA. The LCS is a poxy little ship with no true AShM capability. It’s still armed though, these days with Hellfire, Griffin and RAM. DDG-1000 is optimised for land-attack, which is why it’s armed with two Advanced Gun Systems (which fire specialised land-attack projectiles), Tomahawk and Evolved Sea Sparrow.

      This “COIN madness” problem was always going to be expected after a whole decade of fighting irregular forces with no coherent army to speak of. With the renewed focus on the PLAN, the US Navy will prioritise symmetric warfare doctrines and true game-changing technologies. The Triton is a necessity for the Navy because of the Global Hawk’s ISR capabilities, which provide tremendous help to not just the Navy but other allied forces, while the Poseidon provides an option for dealing with subs and pulling ISR that other aircraft can’t so while it’s an expensive machine, it’s worth it.

      The UCLASS is about having a carrier-launched drone that can perform ISR and strike within the same package at the same time. It’s an ambitious project and in my opinion not worth the trouble at this point in time but if it’s built and constantly perfected, you end up having a great aircraft that can change the way a mission plays out as well as being a top asset to commanders. It’s probably best to think of the UCLASS as a carrier-based MQ-9.

      You’re mostly correct when you say that enemy submarines are the biggest threat to the US carrier fleet but that doesn’t mean you should put your whole focus on ASuW. Anti-ship missiles (especially supersonic ones) are becoming increasingly sophisticated and increasing in range and, if perfected, an ASBM will make subs look like about as powerful as toy water guns compared to a 460mm naval gun.

      • Araya

        “”The vast majority of the US Navy’s surface fleet is armed, in most cases with the Harpoon AShM…””

        Sorry but this is not really true, so actually only the 22 Ticonderoga-class Cruiser (8X Harpoon Missile’s) and 27 DDG51 (also with 8X Harpoon Missile’s) are armed with Harpoon Anti-ship Missiles and as they know the Navy seek to retreat 11 of the Ticonderoga-class Cruiser. And SM2, SM3, SM6 and ESSM are really impressive weapons no question but this are all SAM or ABM Missile Systems and not unusable as ASuW Missile’s and the Anti-ship Missile’s Version of the Tomahawk was also withdrawn from service by the Navy. So the Navy has actually only Land Attack Tomahawks in is VLS Tubes. And Another Problem is the Harpoon Missiles itself, so the Harpoon has a relatively short-range and can also no longer be called a modern Anti-Ship Missiles so it is not Supersonic or Stealthy and as consequence you will need a lot of them just to surpass the Air Defense and CIW Defense of the Chinese Surface Combatants and another big Problems is what the Harpoon cannot be launched form the MK-41 VLS of the DDG51 and CG-47 so it is likely what the US Navy will run out of Harpoon Missile’s before the Chinese of Surface-Ships. It is also very helpfully to take a look one the ASuW firepower of the Chinese Surface Combatants to illustrate the lack of US ASuW Firepower so for example the smallest Chinese Surface Combatant the stealthy Houbei class Missile boat carry 8X C-803 Anti-ship Missile’s how are similar to the US Harpoon Missile but with a longer effective range (up to 280km). And the larger Combatants like the Type 052B destroyer are armed with 16X C-803 Anti-ship Missile and the 4X Russian build Sovremenny-class destroyer are each armed with 8X SS-N-22 improved Supersonic Anti-Ship Missiles. And the US Navy itself has also finally recognized this fact and seek to put with the LRSAM a modern Anti-ship Missile how can be launched from Mk-41 VLS of the DDG51 Fleet but it will take time before the LRSAM become operational.

        “”The LCS is a poxy little ship..””

        The LCS is not a little ship but a multibillion grave without weapons so just look since and weight of the LCS in compare to other Surface Ships. Some Corvettes like the stealthy Visby class how have just the half of the since and 1/5 of the weight of the Freedom class are armed with the same 57mm Gun, 8X Harpoon, 4X Torpedo launchers and the option for additional 6X Anti-Submarine rocket Launchers and 8X SAMs.

        “”You’re mostly correct when you say that enemy submarines are the biggest threat to the US carrier fleet but that doesn’t mean you should put your whole focus on ASuW. Anti-ship missiles (especially supersonic ones) are becoming increasingly sophisticated and increasing in range and, if perfected, an ASBM will make subs look like about as powerful as toy water guns compared to a 460mm naval gun.”””

        ASuW means Anti-surface warfare, ASW means Anti-submarine warfare.^^ But I make sometimes the same mistake and confuse the two shortcuts. What means the ASBM threat so I believe what this threat is extremely overestimated in compare to the real Submarine threat. The Chinese have just a limited number of ASBM Missile’s (DF21) and you need a highly complex and sophisticated Network of high End Satellites and a complex Communication System even to find a Carrier. And even them you know how the Carrier is so it is not even clear them a ASBM will have a better Chance e to kill the Carrier them a conventional Attack with classic Anti-Ship Missiles and airframes because why to hit a moving target with a ballistic missile is really an act of defiance and the carrier group can take also a lot of Countermeasures like Jamming, Carbon fiber smoke, radar decoy’s and with the SM3 the Navy has even an active Defense Systems against the DF21.

        • ycplum

          Basically, all US Frigates, Destroyers and Cruisers carry Harpoon missiles. That makes Clausewitz’s statement true. Whether they are as good as other systems is another story. As for the range of ASuW missiles, a key factor is the ability to detect and target enemy ships over the horizon. The US still has an advantage on the open ocean. Less so near shore. Of course, you are arguing that these systems can use some serious upgrades, I would agree.

          • Araya

            Hi ycplum,

            “”Basically, all US Frigates, Destroyers and Cruisers carry Harpoon missiles.””

            The US Navy will retreat is last Frigates (Perry-class) next Year (2015) and the LCS carry no real weapon especially no Harpoon Missile. So only the 22 Ticonderoga-class Cruiser and 28 DDG51 (DDG51 to DDG78) are equipped with Harpoon Missile’s the other 34 DDG51 have no Harpoon Launcher installed. And the situation become even more problematic them the Navy should be successfully with is plan to retreat 11 of the 22 Ticonderoga-class Cruiser.

            “”The US still has an advantage on the open ocean.”””

            True, as long as the USA has other 50 SSNs and 10-11 Super Carrier the USA clearly rule the blue Water. But one the other Hand any credible War scenario with Red China took place at Chinas Doorstep how the USA becomes especially because of is Carrier centric Strategy against the growing Fleet of heavy armed Chinese Surface Ships and silent Fleet of SSK and soon also up to 12 credible Chinese SSNs as well as the growing ASBM threat extremely vulnerable.

          • ycplum

            At present, every “credible” war scenario focuses on us projecting our power to China, not defending ourselves or our allies (with the notable exception of Taiwan, but that is starting to become a less and less credible scenario). Basically, we are concerned that China is able to defend itself, not become a real threat. Worst projection is that China gains parity in 3 decades. Personally, I think it is closer to 5 decades.
            I would prefer that the US be militarily omnipotent, but that is not reasonable. Basically, the US really needs to start learning o wield its soft power.

          • Araya

            Hi ycplum,

            But Taiwan is not the only Ally how is threatened by China. So Japan face the same threat as well as South Korea over Chinas Nord Korean proxy and nearly all other (but not allied) Country’s in Chinas Neighborhood are threatened like India, Vietnam etc. So it is not so unlikely what a War with Red China can start from a other direction them the classic scenario (China invades Taiwan) so a “limited” War Sino-Japanese (other disputed area) can also lead to a full-scale War as like as a War on the Korean Peninsula with the Insane Kim-clan. And Any of this scenarios
            put the US Navy and other US Forces in the Region in a high-risk environment how the enemy (China and is proxy Nord Korea) can beat the USA.

            “”I would prefer that the US be militarily omnipotent, but that is not reasonable.””

            The USA can remain for a longtime omnipotent it takes just modest investments (4% of is GDP) for is Base Military Budget (DOD and DOE but no other Ministries like Homeland security, CIA etc.). With a base Budget of 4% of the GDP the USA should be able to build and maintain a 400 ship+ Fleet instead of a 260 fleet and also to increase the Number of Fighter by 50% instead of a 30% decreased fleet under the actual budget. Finally it is all a question of the political will to take the necessary steps to secure the US dominance and I hope what the crashing fail of Obama’s Foreign Policy will lead to a more realistic approach (with other words a politic with more hard power, no appeasement and no global zero and other arm-control madness).

          • ycplum

            There has been saber rattling, but no real threat against Japan. It is unfortunate that a very nationalist Japanese leader came into power at the same time that a new Chinese President assumed power. Comments for Japanese Internal consumption got picked up by the Chinese and the new president can’t afford to appear weak, especially while consolidating power.
            As for the spending, I believe the it isn’t the size of our military that matters, but rather having the right structure and flexibility to further our national policies. It may be a bigger military or a smaller military. Of course, we need a coherent national policy to begin with and sadly, that tends to be an exception than the norm.
            In any case, there are many forms of national powers. You can have economical power, cultural power, diplomatic power, technological power, educational power, and of course military power (just to name a broad few). However, all power comes from economic power. We have hamstrung our economic power and there will be cascading effect on all our other other powers.

  • originalone

    With all due respect here, the Congress with its giving away the store, read that as tax breaks and the welfare for business-conglomerate-that is, just where does the money for all these toys the Pentagon forces come from? If anything, these so called experts sure know how to spend other peoples money, but don’t have the foggiest idea how to get the best bang out of the buck. It doesn’t matter which party is in the control tower, the size of the government grows. For each bag of money tossed to the Congress, the Treasury prints a pallet to cover, without the ability beyond “trust me” as a back up. So who is the real enemy in this game?

  • @notrizzo

    I hope this is really getting the USN to look long and hard at what the actual missionn that UCASS will be used for? The no-stealth ISR role seems redundant with the Triton/Poseiden aircraft, so with UCASS be the truck that delivers stand off weapons detected by manned or other off board systems (and serve as the Air Group’s tanker too)? Is it a long range strike system that will go “downtown” in place of less stealthy and shorter ranged manned aircraft?
    The current requirement seems like a punt, which if fine if you are just trying to integrate unmanned systems quickly and then come back to build the unmanned system of the future.
    They need to decide what it is they are actually asking for!

    • Max Reynolds

      I think you make a logical good argument and agree they need to really quantify the strategy and capabilities they need to make it applicable for the needs of fast pace military engagements that globally change within different environments and to different threats.

    • ycplum

      I re-read the article, but I couldn’t find the “no-stealth” role you mentioned. My understanding is that stealth is one of the characteristics that maybe compromised if favor of other factors, but I don’t think they are looking at a non-stealth UCLASS.

  • Robert Warner

    The contracting issues that Frank Kendall addressed are important. The devil is in the contracting process details.