The Navy has just released its draft request for proposal (RFP) for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (UCLASS) to a select group of defense contractors. The companies have been asked to provide the Navy with feedback particularly regarding the feasibility of meeting the program’s proposed performance, cost and schedule goals. This interaction will also allow the Navy to appreciate better what is achievable given the state of technology as well as the implications of potential trade-offs between requirements, cost and schedule. While I do not have access to the RFP, much of which is restricted anyway, I have been following the Navy’s ongoing R&D program and have written about the implications of the UCLASS for naval operations. So, I thought I would provide the Navy with my unsolicited feedback or, to be more accurate, some questions and concerns.
First, about the system’s requirements. What are they and how does the Navy know they are right? There have been a number of press reports about disagreements at very high levels within the Navy and even the Joint Staff about what missions the UCLASS should perform and in what environments. Initially, UCLASS was conceived of as a relatively simple, long-endurance ISR platform. Over time, however, new requirements for light strike and, most recently, aerial refueling have been proposed. Because the Navy only plans to deploy six UCLASS with each air wing, there may be a desire to make the system more robust, asking it to do more in order to ensure that the Pentagon gets its money’s worth from the program. However, adding requirements generally means that platforms become larger, heavier, more complex and more expensive. Some new requirements can even conflict with those that originally drove a program. For example, the UCLASS was initially described as an ISR platform with sufficient endurance to operate off-cycle with normal carrier air wing operations, thereby simplifying flight deck operations. But if it is also going to serve as an aerial refueler, this would require the UCLASS to operate alongside other aircraft both in the air and on the deck.
More to the point, how can the Navy know at this point what the right requirements should be for UCLASS? Doesn’t this depend heavily on the answers to other questions such as how many carriers will the Navy have in a decade, what will be the actual mix of platforms in the air wing, how rapidly and widely will advanced air defense systems proliferate and how difficult will it be to maintain connectivity in a high threat environment? One concern a number of observers have raised is the extent to which the UCLASS will be expected to operate in higher threat environments and hence require a significant degree of stealthiness. But answers to these questions are not yet available. One solution is to require a lot of growth potential in UCLASS. Unfortunately, this means that the UCLASS would be more expensive to acquire and operate than one designed with a nearer-term focus in mind.
A related question has to do with evolving concepts of operations (Conops) for joint and naval forces, in general, and carrier aviation, in particular. Where will UCLASS fit in an increasingly complex, geographically dispersed and networked battle space? The Air Force has described its proposed Long-Range System as leveraging off-board capabilities. Would a UCLASS operating from a forward deployed aircraft carrier be one of these capabilities? What might that mean for how UCLASS is employed as part of a joint force? The greater the number of missions the platform is required to perform, the more complex the Conops can become.
Another question or perhaps more of a concern is how will UCLASS fit into the Navy’s evolving C4I structures and concepts for electronic warfare and communications security? I am not referring to either the control or connectivity segments for the UCLASS which are required by the RFP. The Navy has ambitious programs to enhance its IT infrastructure and its command and control capabilities while also protecting its capabilities from jamming or other forms of interference. It is investing heavily in the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) to connect all the elements of the battle group as well as joint and even combined forces. The Navy is enhancing major weapons systems such as the Aegis air and missile defense system which currently includes the advanced Standard Missile 3 and 6 and will soon incorporate the new advanced Air and Missile Defense Radar. At the same time, the Navy is working assiduously on plans and programs in electronic and cyber warfare intended to defeat advanced anti-access/area denial threats. These are all moving targets. How these other programs finally shake out will impact how or even whether UCLASS can be employed.
The bottom line for me is that it is unclear whether this is the moment to go for an operational UCLASS. There are many unknowns or at least unresolved issues. It is worthwhile to build and operate a test squadron of vehicles in order to figure out the answers to questions about missions, performance, Conops and command, control and communications.
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