The arrival of UCAS on a carrier deck in 2013
will usher in a new era of naval aviation
By DANIEL P. TAYLOR, Special Correspondent
tion executed by the [UCAS-D]
program,” including digitized carrier air traffic control, initial shipboard concept of operations, contingency management approaches,
precision landing navigation solutions and maneuvering the drone
on the carrier flight deck.
The last item may be a particularly challenging technical issue that
the UCAS program is hoping to
solve before UCLASS testing even
begins. The Navy will need to figure
out how to operate an unmanned
aircraft on a flight deck buzzing
with the constant movement of manned aircraft.
Capt. Jaime Engdahl, UCAS program manager, told
reporters at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., on
July 31 that the Navy would be testing ways to control
UCAS when it starts testing aboard the carrier deck. He
also showed reporters a type of mechanical arm that
could be used by someone on the deck to control the
The UCLASS program will seek to leverage more
than the UCAS program, Nava said. The program also
will seek to take lessons learned from other programs
across the Pentagon to control costs and reduce schedule risks, he added.
“Some of these systems include existing ship-qualified
mission control system hardware and common interfaces
and standards so that the UCLASS payload data can be
shared across end users,” he said. “Coordination with
these other programs is an ongoing activity and will con-
tinue throughout the UCLASS program.”
Once UCLASS reaches the field, it will “enhance carrier
capability and versatility” by providing the carrier air wing
with a platform that is persistent and flexible, Nava said.
Exactly how the Navy will use UCLASS is yet to be
determined. The Navy has begun examining what will
replace the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet down the road.
The Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program will inform the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne
Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort, among other programs.
■ UCAS-D was never meant to be a fleet asset, just a means to
■ It will fly for the first time from a carrier next year.
■ The program will end after probe-and-drogue aerial refueling
tests in fiscal 2014
More than 100 years after the Navy first landed an aircraft on the deck of a ship, the sea service is fast approaching another seminal moment
in its history — the first landing of a fixed-wing
unmanned aircraft aboard an aircraft carrier.
The date is still uncertain, as is the carrier that will host
such a moment. But what is certain is that at some point
in 2013, the Navy will land the Unmanned Combat Air
System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) aircraft — a Northrop
Grumman-built fixed-wing aircraft — aboard a carrier
deck to set off the next generation in naval aviation.
The UCAS program, worth about $1 billion, will have
a short life. Its first flight from a carrier will be next year,
and the Navy will close out the program after conducting
subsequent carrier recovery testing and then doing probe-and-drogue aerial refueling tests in fiscal 2014, as the program only was envisioned to demonstrate technologies
rather than become an actual fleet asset.
But those test results will have major ramifications for
the future of naval aviation and inform development of
future programs, most notably the Unmanned Carrier
Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS)
program, which the Navy hopes to field in about 2020.
Charlie Nava, Navy UCLASS program manager, said
the nascent program is “leveraging technology matura-