It is one of the most amazingly futuristic programs in the Pentagon’s arsenal: the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike
(UCLASS) system, a fixed-wing aircraft that can operate alongside manned jets on the deck of an aircraft
carrier. But does the Navy have a good plan for how
exactly this incredible platform will fit in with the
fleet? Some are not so sure — and those people happen
to write the checks.
Lawmakers have grilled Navy officials about the
UCLASS program, trying to figure out how the service
is approaching this new capability and whether it is the
right approach. And the questioning comes at a pivotal
time for the program, as the Navy announced earlier
this year it would delay fielding the aircraft from 2020
to 2022 or 2023 while the Pentagon examines where
the aircraft fits in future plans.
LCDR Courtney Hillson, a Defense Department
spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that the Office of the
Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and the
Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation is in
the midst of conducting a strategic portfolio review of
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
“Their findings will help inform
the budget process and [the president’s 2017 budget] submission,
and until that president’s budget
request is submitted to the
Congress in February 2016 and
becomes part of the public record,
its content is pre-decisional and it
is inappropriate to discuss specific
details,” she said.
She pointed to Deputy Secretary
of Defense Robert O. Work’s comments earlier this year, when he said
the Pentagon had decided that it was
close to launching the request for
proposals for the program, “but we
decided we need to take a pause
because we want to consider the UCLASS as part of the
joint family of unmanned surveillance strike systems and
make sure that we’re going after the right capabilities.
“So, in addition to looking at new capabilities —
capabilities we already have and using them differently
— we’re going to make sure in this environment that
when we do go after a new platform, it’s the platform
that we need from a joint perspective,” Work said in a
speech delivered Feb. 10 in San Diego. “So, all of this
stuff is done with one thing in mind: to provide our
troops with a decisive competitive advantage. Ul-
timately … if it’s not about winning on the future bat-
tlefield, I, as deputy secretary of defense, don’t want to
waste a moment’s time on it.”
Work’s comments are an indication that the Penta-
gon still has work to do to decide how exactly the
UCLASS is going to fit into the future force.
It is that uncertainty, combined with doubts about
the Navy’s approach to developing the program, that is
worrying Congress to an extent — specifically, its
plans to ditch the X- 47 Unmanned Combat Air
System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program now that it
has fulfilled its testing aboard a ship.
What to Do
The Pentagon still has not defined how it will use
the future unmanned fighter, and Congress is concerned
By DANIEL P. TAYLOR, Special Correspondent
Seeking the Right Fit
The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance
and Strike (UCLASS) program and the X- 47 Unmanned Combat
Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program that tested capabilities have some in Congress questioning the Navy’s future plans.
■ The Navy plans to ditch the X- 47 program now that it has fulfilled its testing aboard a ship.
■ The Pentagon still has work to do to decide how exactly the
UCLASS will fit into the future force.
■ Rep. Randy Forbes is encouraged by the Navy’s push to make
sure it is getting the requirements for UCLASS right.