UCLASS Requirements – Some Contrarian Viewpoints

By Chris Rawley

With the U.S. Navy’s UCLASS request for proposal delayed while classified  requirements are again reviewed, a spectrum of opinions about the program have percolated into the public light.  In his recent letter to the Secretary of Defense, Senator John McCain reinforced what seems to be the prevailing view that the Navy needs a very capable (and likely expensive) aircraft, with "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." 

Navy SEAL Captain Robert Newson recently advocated a lower end/lower cost UCLASS supported by the “small, smart, and many” argument.  Blogger CDR Salamander also chimed in with a pragmatic argument that UCLASS requirements creep could lead the program down the same faulty acquisition path as the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship.

The real question that needs to be answered about UCLASS is what is the capability gap we are trying to fill with this program? The counter arguments to building a more affordable, less stealthy UCLASS usually run along the lines of "because we need a carrier-based penetrating strike aircraft." But does the U.S. really have a gap in long range penetrating strike assets in a highly challenged air defense environment?  Presumably, the B-2 bomber, along with 5th generation fighter attack aircraft such as the F-22, not to mention the venerable, but effective sea-launched Tomahawk attack missile will be used for those first 48 hours or so of strikes until the enemy's air defenses can be eroded. Moreover, increasingly these aircraft (and those less stealthy) rely upon long range stand-off smart weapons to strike targets, so "broadband"signature reduction on the bombing aircraft has somewhat decreased in importance.  

parallel question is what role would the UCLASS perform during the awkwardly-named Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (formerly Air Sea Battle) fight?  In brief, this concept requires targets to be struck ashore in a highly networked, modern anti-access/area denial environment. Today’s A2AD infrastructure is not static, but mobile, hidden, widely distributed, and often collocated with civilian populations with the intention of causing dramatic casualties.  The vast majority of land-based targets of concern to naval forces operating offshore are now mobile transporter erector launchers (TELs).  Typical of these threats are China’s DF-21D (CSS-5 Mod-4) 1,450 km anti-ship ballistic missile and Russia’s 300 km range P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile.  The P-800 is also resident in Syria and likely Lebanese Hezbollah’s order of battle.

P-800 Yakhont TEL
The record of U.S. air interdiction campaigns against mobile launchers – the Scud hunts in Desert Storm being a prime example – is telling.  In 1991 the U.S. dedicated 2,493 missions to what came to be called the 'Great Scud Hunt.' But it did not score one confirmable kill against a mobile missile or its launcher in Iraq — though it did destroy what turned out to be a few fuel trucks as well as some East German decoys that looked like the real thing.” Even a large number of long range special forces patrols and aircraft carrying ground moving target indicator (GMTI) sensors were ineffective against these targets. Yes, Desert Storm was nearly three decades ago, but in this fight, technology hasn't advanced significantly.  During the opening stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, allied air forces had the benefit of more than a decade of practically unrestricted flights over Iraq, yet Saddam Hussein was still able to launch a number of ballistic missiles at coalition forces staged in Kuwait. So what will make a worthwhile dent against this mobile launcher threat, especially when there are viable air defenses?

Countering a modern ground-based mobile A2AD regime will not be “hit and run” warfare. Targeting will be more analogous to counter-terrorism, where a single target remains hidden for days or weeks until an opportunity presents itself to take kinetic action, hence the value of long dwell UAVs in the past decade of irregular warfare.  
Urban Concealment: 
Hamas rocket launches from Gaza
The best capability to neutralize these types of targets will be large numbers of extremely long dwell light strike platforms that can perform target identification and strike functions in the same aircraft.  Of course, no technology has yet been developed that is better than the Mk 1 mod 0 eyeballs of a tactical aviator in performing this function.  But carrier-based manned aircraft simply do not have the legs for a persistent TEL-hunting campaign over contested territory and will be busy servicing other targets (such as air defenses) in the early stages of a war.  Satellite imagery is fine for spot coverage of fixed targets, but with few exceptions, not useful for finding TELs that are on the move.  

Some have argued that the MQ-4C Triton (BAMS) along with the new Navy’s P-8 will fill the Navy’s ISR needs.   The primary use for these assets in a major war will be maritime scouting, and in the case of the P-8, submarine hunting.  Regardless, it would be unwise to fly a 737 full of aviators (P-8) over enemy air defenses.  The RQ-4 (Global Hawk/Triton), despite its long legs and high altitude of flight, is a completely unarmed platform.  Nor is it equipped with any sort of expendable countermeasures that a UCLASS might carry.  The Air Force's stealthy RQ-170 could help find fleeting targets, but reportedly has no weapons with which to engage them.  

Smaller unmanned ISR-focused aircraft such as the Scan Eagle and the rotary wing Fire Scout simply don't have the endurance or flight profiles to complete long range missions over contested land. Taking into consideration the joint service ISR portfolio, existing propeller driven remotely piloted aircraft in the Air Force inventory such as the MQ-9 have long legs and can strike targets they find, but are slow and very susceptible to weather. They also lack the autonomy to fly when GPS and data-links are jammed.

What about payload capacity? The miniaturization of weapons and sensors means that a 4,000 pound payload is not necessary to achieve mission kills on a dozen or more TELs per sortie.  The low cost precision 250 lb Small Diameter Bomb has proven very effective in destroying ISIS vehicles in Syria and Iraq and can be dropped from a 50 mile stand-off range. Even smaller air dropped precision weapons, such as the Griffin, would likely work for unmanned TEL-killing.  The beauty of targeting a mobile missile is that the missile's fuel and net explosive weight of the warhead can be leveraged to destroy the launcher.

Besides TEL-neutralization, the range of future UCLASS missions is wide open, with suppression of enemy air defenses, electronic warfare, and even anti-cyber missions a possibility.  A historical example from a 1960s unmanned naval aviation program is germane to UCLASS procurement. In discussing the development of the QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone, LCDR BJ Armstrong notes that: “Strict adherence to requirements and a system that doesn't encourage spiral development and improvement will reduce the potential for finding creative new ways of executing maritime missions.”

The UCLASS requirements debate is extremely important as a range of outcomes could produce anything from a necessary gap-filling platform optimized for the joint force to another multi-decade unaffordable acquisition sea anchor on naval aviation procurement. The question remains: is UCLASS going to be just another strike aircraft, or an entirely new capability in the joint force?

The author is Navy Reserve Officer and entrepreneur. The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency. 


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