Although the Department of Defense has established high hurdles for initiating new weapons programs, every once in a while an effort slips through the process that seems doomed to failure from the start. The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system is such a program. Originally it was supposed to be a stealthy, long-range system with aerial-refueling capability that could accomplish combat missions in contested airspace far from the carriers hosting it. Then the Navy saw the price-tag. So now it has become mainly a surveillance drone, that might or might not have aerial refueling capability, and that might or might not be able to operate in contested air space.
When you see this kind of instability in a new program, it’s a tip-off that the effort is going to run into trouble during development. The Navy has decided to keep its draft request for proposals secret from everybody except the four industry teams competing to win a development contract, but just by listening to what the service says in public about the program, you get the feeling it isn’t ready for prime-time. At least, that’s the feeling Congress seems to be getting. Senate appropriators have drafted language saying that no final solicitation to industry should be made until performance requirements stabilize and are blessed by the Pentagon’s top review panel. House authorizers have issued a report complaining UCLASS as currently described doesn’t add much to fleet capabilities.
So why is the sea service seeking $400 million in the fiscal year beginning October 1 to commence development of such a shaky idea? To answer that question, you have to go back to the dawn of the new millennium, when the Bush Administration was propounding the notion of “military transformation” driven by emerging technologies. One of the technologies the Navy latched onto at the time was unmanned aircraft — drones — that had the potential to stay airborne far longer than manned aircraft. That was a smart choice, up to a point: a decade of research on unmanned-aircraft concepts eventually led to the land-based, very-long-range MQ-4C Triton and the sea-based, vertical-ascent MQ-8B Fire Scout, systems that will greatly enhance the situational awareness of warfighters.
But unmanned systems have important limitations, particularly when operated from the crowded and inherently dangerous decks of aircraft carriers. There needs to be a compelling reason for putting them there. Thus far, no such rationale has materialized for UCLASS. The Navy already possesses abundant surveillance and strike assets, which are bolstered by the capabilities of other services (most notably the Air Force). So spending billions of dollars on an ill-defined program just to have a carrier-based drone is a dubious proposition — especially when the service says it is challenged to fund its next-generation replacement of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, arguably the most important modernization effort in the entire joint inventory.
The Navy might be able to craft a more convincing case for UCLASS if it were closely linked to defeating the “anti-access, area denial” strategies of countries like China. But leading think tanks and legislators such as Rep. Randy Forbes (a genuine expert on maritime affairs) say UCLASS as currently conceived can’t do that. In fact, no sea-based drone can if the acquisition strategy begins with affordability. To extend the reach of carrier-based aviation into contested areas, manned and unmanned aircraft alike need things like stealth, situational awareness and aerial refueling — items that inevitably drive up costs.
According to Sydney Freedberg of the widely-read Breaking Defense web-site, the Pentagon’s top acquisition officials will meet September 10 to determine whether UCLASS is sufficiently mature to move forward. Chances are they won’t like what they see. They will quiz the Navy on whether UCLASS is really needed given its scaled-back performance features, and they won’t be impressed if program managers say they have the option of adding stealth or payload or refueling capability later. In the current fiscal environment, there simply isn’t enough money to develop every “nice-to-have” program. There has to be a clearly articulated need, and a convincing solution. UCLASS, at least as it exists today, may not be able to meet that standard.
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