McCain: Navy’s UCLASS in Danger without More Stealth, Weapons

Senator says Navy carrier-launched drone needs to be stealthier and more lethal or the program will be at risk.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Navy’s carrier-launched drone needs to be stealthier and more lethal than previously planned, adding his voice to a recent chorus of concern that the Navy’s mission plans for the first-of-its-kind platform are too narrowly configured.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter asking that the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft be configured to carry a weapons payload for strike missions, be stealthy enough to elude enemy detection systems in high-threat areas, and also perform long-range ISR missions.

McCain called current or existing plans to engineer a platform configured purely for long-range ISR “strategically misguided.”

“Developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily an ISR platform and unable to operate effectively in medium- to high-level threat environments would be operationally and strategically misguided,” McCain wrote in the letter to Carter.

The Navy had planned to launch a competition among vendors to build the UCLASS through the release of what’s called a Request For Proposal this past summer. However, concerns from lawmakers, analysts and some Pentagon leaders wound up resulting in a substantial delay for the competition in order to allow time for a formal review of needed requirements for the platform.

“I am concerned that the current requirements proposed for the UCLASS program place a disproportionate emphasis on unrefueled endurance to enable sustained ISR support to the carrier strike group, which would result in an aircraft design with serious deficiencies in both long-term survivability and its internal weapons payload capacity,” McCain writes.

Aerial refueling technology is central to the debates about UCLASS because if the drone is configured to travel extremely long-distances without needing to be refueled – that affects the size, shape and contours of the body of the aircraft due to the need to engineer a larger fuel tank, analysts have said.  A larger fuel tank can impact the design of the drone and affect its stealth properties.

Some design proposals for UCLASS would make the drone less stealthy and less able to carry a larger weapons payload – yet be able to travel very long distances as an ISR platform. Other proposals focus more on stealth and weapons payload.

“I would encourage you to consider what attributes could enable the UCLASS program to perform strike, as well as ISR, missions—including an unrefueled endurance several times that of manned fighters; a refueled mission endurance measured in days; broadband, all-aspect radar cross-section reduction sufficient to find and engage defended targets; and the ability to carry internally a flexible mix of up to 4,000 pounds of strike payload,” he writes.

McCain said in the letter that the Navy needs a carrier drone but “rushing to start the wrong program will only delay – and could prevent – fielding of the right system.”

The Arizona senator advocates for a similar position as Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of HASC’s Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee. Last summer, Forbes told Miltary.com that he was very concerned about requirements for the drone and the direction they were heading.

“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,” he said. “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 (anti-access/area-denial).”

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 have said.

In 2013, 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.

Meanwhile, as a precursor to the UCLASS program, the Navy has been experimenting with a demonstrator version of the technology, called the X-47B, built by Northrop Grumman

The X-47B flew from a carrier in May and November of 2013 and is now working on streamlining carrier deck operations and maneuvers with manned aircraft.

In fact, 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.

McCain’s letter asks Carter to maximize the use of the X-47B demonstrator in order to gain technological insights for what will become the UCLASS platform.

“Under current plans, starting this April, there will be no unmanned air vehicles operating from carrier decks for several years. I think this would be a lost learning opportunity in what promises to be a critical area for sustaining the long-term operational and strategic relevance of the aircraft carrier,” he states.

— Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@military.com

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • JS78

    McCain's points have some merit but I think the real value of a carrier based UAV lies in its ability to carry additional weapons for manned fighters. If a carrier is attempting to launch missions into a neer peer's territory they will most likely be outnumbered by land-based fighters (the Navy reached the same conclusion in sims run several years ago). Why not develop a UAV that can act as a wingman for manned aircraft? Load it up with 8 AMRAAMs and put it under the control of a manned fighter? It would thus mitigate one of the inherent weaknesses of stealth aircraft — that all their weapons must be carried internally in order to maintain a stealthy profile. That means a rather limited weapons load out. A stealthy UAV loaded up with missiles under the control of a manned stealthy fighter would be a nice force multiplier. Just my two cents.

    • bobbymike

      I agree and if you can package it into a VLO platform it can fly ahead and launch a nasty surprise at enemy aircraft who have no idea it's there. There are even some hints at the US having space based radar targeting capability. A general disclosed some conops that have been tried with aircraft completely electronically silent while being cued by 'other' assets. When asked if these were space based he neither confirmed nor denied.

      But there is also the idea of having an 'almost' strategic bomber (range not payload) on a carrier deck that can keep carriers as far away from, let's say, the coast of China as possible until we have degraded their IRBM and airborne strike forces.

      • blight_jklasfdljk

        They might just use it like an unmanned F-117. Stealthy, minimal air to air, fly through enemy air defense, drop bombs on target, return home. If range is superior to enemy cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles, park at standoff range and pick off targets, then iteratively push deeper into the enemy's heartland picking off targets of value before committing manned assets…in short, the 6-month buildup before Desert Storm with stealthy UAVs before committing to a manned air war.

    • Dfens

      Hell, it's hard enough to target your own weapons in a dogfight.

      A "force multiplier" for the current F-18 would be to have a big tanker they could put in orbit around the ship to tank the Sucker Hornets after they launch. Right now they have to launch 2 F-18's for every one that goes on a mission so one can buddy tank the other. Hopefully the replacement airplane won't be as much of a fuel hog, but we've probably got 30 years before anything else flies off a carrier — assuming Lockheed is successful in getting the F-35 program cancelled in the next year or so.

      • mule

        Upgrades that are being proposed by Boeing will improve the range of the Super Hornet. Conformal fuel tanks (like the F-15E) and improved engines.

      • Dfens

        They redesigned the whole airplane in the early '90s and told us that was going to fix everything that was wrong with that piece of crap. But we should believe it this time, right?

      • mule

        So you're saying that technology hasn't advanced at all in the last 20 years? The worst thing any program can do is assume that it is and will be the pinnacle of technology for the entire life of the system. One of the best things about the Super Hornet is that it CAN be updated.

      • Dfens

        Technology hasn't advanced if you use the F-18 as the measure. Vehicles are funny things. Those that suck, suck. Adding gps just doesn't fix suck, just like spin doesn't fix the fact that an F-18 needs to tank as soon as it takes off from a carrier, nor does it fix the fact that the earlier models of F-18 also had to tank as soon as they got off the carrier. This is amazing when you consider they share this same suck, despite the fact that every part of the later models is new. This suck remains despite the fact that the Navy told us the best feature of the "new" F-18 is that it wouldn't have any of the problems the old F-18 had. You have to wonder if the Navy and McDonnell Douglas were lying then or just too incompetent to know both airplanes would suck in the same way, but then again I'm thinking it really doesn't matter, does it?

      • blight_jlkasdf

        If we had appropriate generational iteration we wouldn't have to think about upgrades and 50 year lifecycles. Yuck. We'd still be using F-4's with sensor fusion.

      • Dfens

        Even more sad is the fact that if we were using F-4's with sensor fusion, we'd be better off than we are using F-18's with whatever.

    • blight_jklasjlf

      I suppose the Navy is planning to use UCLASS to target far ahead of the fleet and supply targeting information for ship-based weapons systems, which can have genuinely long legs to attack targets.

    • Nick9876

      A UAV mule could make sense for air to ground missions, but for air to air the reaction time must be very fast. I doubt the F-35 pilot would have enough time available to control a UAV. Or the F-35 would have to use automatic tactics to control the UAV by software. Another problem is the lack of supersonic speed and maneuvrability of the UCLASS. Risking a 150 million + UCLASS for a mission for which it is poorlely suited doesn't seem like a bright idea.

      It could be used however for close in defense of the carrier. It would be used to detect incoming threats over the horizon in a much more survivable and stealthy way than an E-2D and would guide the SAMs launched from the CG and its own AAMs against the incoming missiles.

      If you want more shots, the most cost effective way is to give the F-35 6 internal missiles, and make its missiles better. The 3 variants would benefit from that.

  • mule

    What McCain is suggesting will result in a drone that costs as much as full fledged fighter; be really big to accommodate internal weapons AND have a long un-refueled range; and spend decades in development so it can do ISR, long range strike, and be super duper stealthy. All of the tasks he is proposing would be better served by 2 or 3 different versions. Let's also consider that this would be the very first attempt at an carrier based, operationally deployed, combat drone fleet. There will be a lot to learn about using planes effectively and integrating them into the carrier air wing. Lets learn what works with smaller drone programs with faster turn around times before we dive into the behemoth, JSF-like programs.

    • blight_jlkasf

      If UCLASS lets us put stealthy drones on target to collect data for the less stealthy F-35's, F/A-18s to do their jobs better…then that is a force multiplier of its own.

  • Steve Grieb

    I have to agree with mule. We could have an affordable drone with a limited, but useful ISR mission that we could deploy in the near future at an affordable cost to develop the technologies we would need in future drones. Instead some members of CONgress, think we need a bloated, over complicated program that won't produce an operational aircraft for 20 to 30 years; the equivalent of the F-35. This is about pork. How many of these guys do you think have one or more of the potential builders plants in their states? I think it is better to field something with a realistic mission in a realistic time frame at a realistic cost.

  • MONTI

    "carry internally a flexible mix of up to 4,000 pounds of strike payload"
    Basically a better door-kicking striker than the F-35.

    The X-47 already has better RCS, range, endurance, and (potential) payload than the F-35C; so what is the big deal?

    If the RFP has performance requirements better than the F-35C, to my mind, that means the Navy is already looking a the F-35C replacement.

    • William_C1

      4,000 pounds is less than what the F-35C can carry internally.

      The X-47B was a tech demonstrator and lacked the necessary stealth refinements. As an end result it's RCS is likely worse than a production design like the F-22 or F-35. It's software is also relatively basic meaning it was not a fully operational UCAV. At its current stage it is far closer to the X-35 than the F-35.

      The design has potential to be developed into a full system but it will not be a replacement for manned fighters. Unmanned systems still have their limitations, especially in electronic-warfare heavy environments. It's also going to take a lot of time and money to get working. If you think the software on the F-35 is complicated it will look easy compared to what will be necessary to conduct autonomous operations against an enemy that can shoot back.

      • Dfens

        4,000 lbs is twice what the F-22 can carry, but the F-22 is so damn great.

      • blight_jklasfdlj

        We spent the Cold War iterating fighter designs. We might as well put a first generation stealth UAV into the field versus waiting for the perfect one to show up after a cost-draining effort to build one.

  • Nick9876

    The extra size for a 2000lbs JDAM or LRASM vs a small bay wouldn't be that much versus a small bay, so it is probably worth it to design it with larger bays.

    It should be designed with external hardpoints too.The external hardpoints could be used to carry stealth missiles ( JASSM-ER/ LRASM ) for initial strikes, or non stealth weapons once air dominance has been obtained. Adding 4 pylons on the wings is not a big deal.

    • Dbenne

      those designs could be on the next generation drone.

  • WaltBJ

    McCain is 100% correct in calling for broad-band stealth. The closer a striker gets before detection the less time is left to take action. That means items like HARM/JDAM also need broad-band stealth. Just hugging the surface – nap of the earth -4 isn't going to work much longer.

    • mule

      An alternative is making a bunch of less expensive, sorta stealthy drones that can swarm attack a target. Yes, you may see them coming, but you can't shoot them all down.

    • blight_ljasdflj

      The stealth you need is dependent on how close you want to get to a target.

      If the plan is to carry glide-bombs, then if you want to fly at high altitude and maximize glide range you should expect to be acquired before you can drop your bombs. If you plan to use the unmanned aircraft to drop an ALCM or a bomb with a range-extending rocket or turbofan, then the amount of stealth required is more modest.

  • Roland

    It should be stealthier than before. Probably Iran and Russia airspace is a good airspace test run to prove it.

  • sambo

    Why not just have mini drone subs floating around the world with no life on board. dormant and deep. maybe anchored? and for instance there is a fight in a specific region or area on the grid. activate drone sub to surface. Drone sub has 100 launchable missiles and it sends a few to the area needed. mission done. drone turned off and sinks back down into the undetectable depths lol.

    • blight_jlkasdfjlk

      If only missiles solved all of our problems.

    • Nick9876

      I was thinking the same thing. A towable trailer carrying a bunch of very long range missiles that would be spread across the ocean.

  • Joe

    They are going to take what was originally a good idea – get some ISR and limited strike UAS on the carrier as quickly as possible – and turn it into garbage that won't be ready for another 15 years.

    Reality – the first UAS to operate off the ship is going to be bad. We are going to do all sorts of things wrong that we can't even guess. The smart money is to do it cheap and fast but make it useful in it's own way, then learn from your mistakes. But instead we are going to make it slowly, expensively, and it's still going to be garbage.

  • cjkosh

    McCain and Forbes miss the point. The first step for a new technology is KISS (keep it simple stupid). That also translates to relatively inexpensive and much sooner. A simple platform based on existing or near term technology that is cheaper is better to learn expensive lessons on. Mandating the creation of a do-it-all UClass will mean huge expense, massive delays, compromised performance in most respects, and most likely far off deployment or even cancellation. I hate to admit it, but the Navy is right on this one.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Agree with Joe and cjkosh. Endless reworking of the platform won't lead to a better initial UAV, it'll lead to analysis paralysis and inevitable goldplating. The current quartet of proposed airframes provide the Navy with some hard choices to make, in terms of range and stealthiness, and the Navy ought be left alone to make them and get on with the program.

    A stealthy, heavily weaponized UAV for Naval use in a heavily contested environment may have to wait for the evolution of a considerable level of AI autonomy, and that's not going to happen quickly. It will evolve, but slowly.

  • Walt Bjorneby

    KISS rules!