The U.S. Navy will likely issue a request for proposals (RFP) in the coming weeks for a 10-month preliminary design phase of the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system (UCLASS) program, according to Lockheed Martin, one of the interested contractors.
The RFP will set in motion a new unmanned aircraft system (UAS) development that has attracted interest from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, but that has only slowly come to fruition since the Navy issued a request for information (RFI) three years ago. The Navy specifies a UCLASS system that will provide “persistent, unmanned semi-autonomous, carrier-based” intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting and strike capabilities. Four to six air vehicles would operate from a carrier to support two 24-hour orbits. Limited fleet operational use is planned in 2018.
Bob Ruszkowski, Lockheed Martin director of UCLASS program development, said the UCLASS system will be the first operational UAS to be launched and recovered from an aircraft carrier. It will also be armed for “light strike” capability with a weapon such as the 500-pound joint direct attack munition. These factors distinguish the UCLASS program from the Navy’s separate unmanned combat air system demonstration (UCAS-D) featuring Northrop Grumman’s X-47B. However, contractors should receive government-furnished information from the UCAS-D program to help facilitate the UCLASS development, said Ruszkowski, who spoke during the Lockheed Martin press day on May 14.
Northrop Grumman would appear to have a leg up in the competition with the X-47B, which accomplished its first catapult launch from the carrier USS George H.W. Bush on May 14. Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale, Calif., has advanced a flying-wing design drawing from the company’s RQ-170 Sentinel UAS and the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. General Atomics proposes the Sea Avenger, a carrier-based derivative of the jet-powered Predator C Avenger. Boeing will likely propose its Phantom Ray air vehicle, which is based on the X-45 that competed for the UCAS-D program.
The Navy issued an RFI in March 2010 to identify potential industry sources for UCLASS systems. The notice called for “carrier-based, low-observable UAS concepts, optimized for irregular and hybrid warfare scenarios [and] capable of integrating with manned platforms as part of the Carrier Air Wing by the end of 2018.” This March, the service said that it intends to award firm fixed-price contracts for four preliminary design reviews (PDR). It said all four contractors “have credible, existing, comprehensive UCLASS design solutions” that will be ready for PDR evaluation by the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2014. The program also includes control system and carrier segment elements that will be developed concurrently. The Navy is expected to “down-select” to one aircraft platform at the conclusion of the PDR phase.
Ruszkowski said the three-year span from the Navy’s original RFI to the PDR phase has allowed contractors to flesh out their concepts. “What’s not as helpful,” he said, is that contractors have only recently seen draft specifications. “To have the specifications in hand a couple of months before the preliminary design phase starting puts us in a little bit of a difficult situation. We can manage through it,” he said.