The U.S. Navy has embraced unmanned aircraft (“drones”) as a way of expanding the reconnaissance and strike capabilities of its fleet. Two of these programs — the land-based MQ-4C Triton and the vertical-ascent MQ-8B Fire Scout — look like winners. The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, usually referred to by its acronym UCLASS, appears less promising. One reason why is that outsiders keep trying to dictate performance features to the Navy even though the service has already conducted a detailed series of tradeoffs that were blessed by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council — the Pentagon’s most senior panel for reviewing combat-system needs. If these outsiders succeed in changing the requirements, Navy support for UCLASS will fade, and the program will die.
The outsiders come in three flavors: congressional staffers who think they understand naval combat needs better than warfighters do; think-tank analysts espousing a transformational vision of the future fleet; and contractors seeking an edge in the competition to determine what company will develop the drone. The complaint they all seem to share is that the Navy wants the new drone mainly to extend the reach of its carrier-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, rather than to strike remote targets with airborne weapons. It’s not an either/or question — a recon drone can have some strike capability and a strike drone can have some recon functions — but rather a disagreement over where the emphasis should be placed when the drone is designed.
What the Navy seems to have said in its initial solicitation to industry is that it wants UCLASS to be mainly about reconnaissance rather than striking surface targets. That certainly makes sense to me. Even the biggest drones in the joint fleet can only carry a few thousand pounds of payload, implying modest bomb loads; a typical air campaign against a country like Serbia or Iraq can involve the use of thousands of munitions. But use that same payload for reconnaissance equipment operating in the radio-frequency, infrared and visible-light segments of the spectrum, and you can greatly enhance the effectiveness of other strike assets in the fleet — like carrier-based Super Hornet fighters and Tomahawk missiles on destroyers.
This is a natural division of labor that favors the long reach of drones for finding targets and the much heavier payloads of dedicated strike assets for actually taking them out. Long reach, meaning long endurance near targets, is the most important performance feature of drones. In the case of UCLASS, the Navy found the sweet spot at 14 hours of unrefueled flight, because anything with greater endurance might not fit on a carrier deck, and anything with less would cost much more to operate. For instance, if the drone could only stay airborne for eight hours, you would need twice as many aircraft to cover the same target area, increasing cost and complexity — assuming that a drone of more limited range could reach desired target areas at all. The Navy apparently has decided what it really needs on its carrier decks that hasn’t yet been funded is long-reach reconnaissance.
Obviously, there are numerous additional considerations that must go into the service’s calculations such as survivability when contemplating the challenges posed by high-end adversaries like China. UCLASS will probably have some stealth features to help it hide in hostile air space, but nothing like the integrated stealth Northrop Grumman is designing into its RD-180 successor to the Air Force’s RQ-4C Global Hawk. However, China may not need to worry about UCLASS if congressional staff, think-tanks and contractors keep taking pot shots at UCLASS, because that will undermine support for the program both in the Pentagon and in the broader political system. The program has already been slowed by dissension within the Navy about whether it is really needed in an era of austere budgets; if outsiders keep questioning the Navy’s judgment, the service will probably decide it can do without a carrier-based drone, and just move on.
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