The Defense Department was set to release this summer the final request for proposal for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, aircraft, but divisions within the department about the scope of the program and the Navy’s requirements of the drone have led to repeat delays.
Already, the drone has become a symbol of a broader debate within DOD about what capabilities future carrier air wings need, particularly whether they need a long-range penetrating surveillance and strike aircraft. At this point the UCLASS program is so deeply troubled that the most sensible action DOD leaders can take is send the program back to the drawing board to begin scoping requirements from scratch.
This time, however, department leaders should make clear from the outset that UCLASS is meant to fill a gap. It is a long-range stealthy aircraft meant to give aircraft carriers greater reach in a new age. This wouldn’t be a new requirement, but rather the original guidance to the Department of the Navy that was issued in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (and largely repeated in the 2010 QDR and the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance). Namely, the military wants to “develop an unmanned longer-range carrier-based aircraft capable of being air-refueled to provide greater standoff capability, to expand payload and launch options, and to increase naval reach and persistence.”
Here’s why. Threats from long-range ballistic and cruise missiles – especially the kind being fielded by China – are pushing aircraft carriers further from enemy shores, beyond the range of their aircraft. Without a long-range penetrating aircraft, the carrier will be irrelevant against sophisticated adversaries. The Navy’s current plan is a modestly stealthy maritime surveillance platform, which will not help solve this problem.
Killing UCLASS now, so that it may be reshaped into a useful program, may be the best way to save it in the long run. In doing so, DOD leaders would be taking a page from one of the department’s most important future weapon systems, known as the long range strike bomber, which was originally born out of the ashes of the terminated “next-generation bomber.”
In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates cancelled the next-generation bomber program amid concerns about rising costs. The Air Force still needed the capability to strike targets at long range, however, so his cancellation spurred a detailed review of requirements to determine how to affordably field long-range strike capabilities. In 2011, Gates announced the results of that review, a new bomber with revised requirements. Critics decried that the Air Force’s “zombie bomber” had risen from the grave, but the new bomber was more phoenix than zombie. With adjusted requirements and a new cost ceiling, the bomber that resulted from Gates’ cancellation and subsequent review was more affordable and achievable.
UCLASS should be put on a similar footing, by pushing reset on the program and giving it a fresh start. The biggest objection to such a move would be that it would inevitably delay getting an operational unmanned aircraft on a carrier deck even longer. So, the military should continue to develop other critical technologies in the interim. This includes continuing the X-47B, or experimental unmanned combat air system aircraft carrier demonstration (UCAS-D) and developing autonomous aerial refueling, a key enabler for long-range operations. The department also should retain some UCLASS funds to further mature designs from all four industry competitors, in order to ensure a robust competition for the UCLASS program once final requirements are issued.
Before Pentagon officials embark on a major acquisition program costing billions of dollars, they should ensure that they are getting the right weapon system for the right mission. Particularly in the current fiscal environment, the Defense Department does not have the luxury of expending precious resources on a program that does not meet a critical need. The Navy’s current vision of UCLASS is too deeply flawed to correct at the margins. To preserve the carrier’s relevance in the future, DOD leaders should kill the existing UCLASS and start over.