UCLASS: Breaking the Analysis Paralysis

As the requirements definition for the U.S. Navy's unmanned carrier aircraft (UCLASS)  program to develop a long duration, carrier-based unmanned air system sits stalled awaiting an ongoing Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) ISR UAV review due sometime this fiscal year, one thing is sure: the longer the decision is delayed, the later this important capability - in whatever form it eventually may take - will hit the fleet. The aircraft's original initial operating capability has already slipped from 2017 to no earlier than 2023.

Possibly in an attempt to break the ongoing analytical logjam, informed naval analysts have begun to suggest alternatives to the binary decision of simply buying a UCLASS specialized in ISR and light strike or one that is optimized for long-range, penetrating strike.

Bryan McGrath, Deputy Director of the Center for American Seapower, came to realize the importance of a long-range, carrier-based scouting aircraft while researching the report he co-authored for the Hudson Institute on the future of aircraft carriers and supporting fleet composition. McGrath now argues that the Navy should acquire two variants of unmanned carrier aircraft, each specialized for its respective role of ISR or strike.

In another recent report by CNAS, retired Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix discusses how trade-offs in air wing mass, persistence, payload, and most recently low observability, have evolved with the carrier's aircraft complement over time. The report includes significant discussion of the role of an unmanned carrier aircraft capable of operating at stand-off distance from an adversary's anti-access networks.  "Given the physiological demands of the length of the mission driven by stand-off distance and/or the need to loiter on-station to find mobile or time critical targets, the minute energy management and split second timing involved in penetrating a dense anti-air network, and the current development of technology, the research community has begun to investigate the development of an unmanned platform to accomplish this mission."

The requirement for long loiter time in order to hunt time-critical or fleeting targets has been discussed previously in this blog.  Though recognizing the importance of that aspect of the unmanned carrier air mission set, Hendrix goes on to compare advocates of an ISR-centric UCLASS with battleship admirals of the 1920s and 30s who "calcified in their ways... could only envision naval aviation serving as spotters in support of battleship gunfire."

Graphic courtesy of CNAS.
In the end, Hendrix proffers three alternative air wings including various UCLASS options.  This more holistic approach considers modifying other aspects of the planned air wing (especially the extremely expensive F-35C) in order to accelerate an enhanced UCLASS program (Option 2). Option 3 would acquire a mix of "six attack squadrons composed of 16 true unmanned combat aerial vehicles, 12 aircraft configured as low observable strikers, and four aircraft configured as tankers/ISR platforms (minus stealth accruements)." It should be noted that both of the aforementioned reports discuss the need for UCLASS to provide organic air wing airborne refueling.

The phasing of these different types of aircraft would be important. It's likely that the control software needed in an ISR variant would take less development time than that of a penetrating aircraft designed to strike at least semi-autonomously in a denied electromagnetic spectrum, so it would be beneficial to focus on funding and deploying the ISR aircraft first. Side benefits of a dual-variant approach to a UCLASS purchase would be to maintain the industrial base of two different aircraft manufacturers as well as affording various political trade-offs that could result from truncated F-35 buys.  However, the Navy should demand common control stations, data paths, and base operating software for the ISR and strike-heavy variants of UCLASS, regardless of which company ultimately manufactures each type. This commonality would reduce life cycle costs and provide greater flexibility in operations.

One would hope these alternative ideas will break the analysis paralysis plaguing the UCLASS program, but perhaps they might just make it worse... With no shortage of ideas under consideration, only leadership and compromise - from both the Navy and Congressional sides - can move this program forward smartly.


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