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.
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