U.S. Navy Aims For Carrier-Based UCAV in 2018

 - August 16, 2013, 11:05 AM
The U.S. Navy says that operational UCAVs could be landing on aircraft carriers in 2018. (Image: Lockheed Martin)

The U.S. Navy says that the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system (UClass) could be operational as early as Fiscal Year 2018. On August 14, the Department of Defense announced the award of $15 million contracts to Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman for preliminary design reviews (PDR) of the UClass air vehicle. A draft request for proposals (RFP) will be issued next month. A final RFP will follow early next year, leading to contract award by the end of next year.

At the Unmanned Systems 2013 conference in Washington, D.C. this week, Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the Navy’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, listed these milestones for what he described as a “traditional yet accelerated source selection process” for the UClass program. The four OEMs are pursuing the air vehicle requirement with varying unmanned designs. The quantity of vehicles the Navy will procure will depend on the capabilities of the chosen aircraft. The command and control and carrier segments of the program will be developed separately.

“I’m not buying aircraft; I’m buying systems,” Winter said. “My requirement from the CNO [Chief of Naval Operations] is to provide a varying spectrum of 24/7-capable orbits from an aircraft carrier…What we’re going forward with in budget documents is the number of orbits we will procure.” Added Charlie Nava, UClass program manager with the Naval Air Systems Command:  “The PDRs are intended to inform the Navy of technical risk, cost and design maturity of the air segment, and allow the industry teams to better understand the program’s requirements across the entire UClass system,”

Knowledge gained from developing the command and control and “carrier digitization” components of the Northrop Grumman X-47B demonstration will be applied to the UClass program, Winter said. The Navy accomplished the first carrier launch of the X-47B from the USS George H.W. Bush on May 14, and the first arrested landing on July 10. The tailless, fighter-sized aircraft performed two arrested landings on the carrier; on its third attempt, the aircraft was diverted to the NASA space launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, when a navigation error was detected.

“On the third attempt, we were four miles out,” Winter said. “Our system identified a degrading navigation computer, one of three [navigation computers]. The voting algorithm said, ‘We now have a degraded navigation solution’ and notified the mission operator…There was no physics-based reason why we couldn’t have continued with that air vehicle and do that third trap. But we’re in an ‘X’ test environment, and so we took it back to the beach.”