Mark Collins – New US Navy Drones: UCLASS to be Tankers Not Recon/Strike?

Further to this post last May,

US Navy Aviation: From UCLASS Drone to F/A-XX Fighter-Bomber (unmanned)

it looks like the UCLASS program is set for a major shake-up; but will the Republican-dominated Congress–which likes the strike capability–go along?  At US Naval Institute News (note Super Hornets):

Pentagon to Navy: Convert UCLASS Program Into Unmanned Aerial Tanker, Accelerate F-35 Development, Buy More Super Hornets

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort is being retooled as primarily a carrier-based unmanned aerial refueling platform — one of several Pentagon directed naval aviation mandates in the service’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget submission.

The shift from UCLASS to the new Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) will be made alongside an additional buy of Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets over the next several years [see “How Long Will the F/A-18E/F Line Growl On?“] and accelerated purchases and development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

The trio of budget moves seeks to blunt the Navy’s looming strike fighter shortfall, move more stealth capability sooner into the carrier air wing and create a development path for future unmanned systems onboard the service’s fleet of nuclear carriers, according to the rationale the Pentagon put forth to the service several defense officials told USNI News.

The budget submission – in part informed by the Pentagon’s UAV strategic program review (SPR) led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work – will also include 15 F-35C JSFs in 2017 and plan for an additional 14 Super Hornets in FY18, USNI News understands.

“That study found that you need a mix of all of these things,” a defense official told USNI News on Monday [Feb. 1]…

The latest Pentagon direction for the fate of UCLASS changes the character of the program from the Navy’s intended information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform that would patrol while the rest of the carrier air wing was at rest, to an aircraft that will actively operate with the air wing.

…[Congress in] last year’s National Defense Authorization Act set aside “$350.0 million for continued development and risk reduction activities of the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS–D) aircraft that would benefit the overall UCLASS program, and $375.0 million to be used for a competitive prototyping of at least two follow-on air systems that move the Department toward a UCLASS program capable of long-range strike in a contested environment [emphasis added],” according to the joint statement on the legislation.

Its unclear if the new CBARS will build off the FY 2016 NDAA funds or make a new request as part of the budget. UCLASS had planned to enter the fleet by 2022 or 2023…

Meanwhile in Canada (note last comment):

Royal Canadian Air Force: Two Blinking Decades to Get (armed) Drones!

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


5 thoughts on “Mark Collins – New US Navy Drones: UCLASS to be Tankers Not Recon/Strike?”

  1. But note this:

    “Carter Unveils Budget Details; Pentagon Requests $582.7 Billion

    Missing from Carter’s speech was a mention of the F-35, which is expected to face cuts as part of the tradeoffs to fund other priorities. He also did not mention the decision to turn the Navy’s UCLASS system into a refueling asset known as CBARS, first revealed Monday by Defense News.”

    That story:

    Must of lot of Pentagon in-fighting going on (viz. the leaking).

    Mark Collins

  2. What the USN is saying:

    ‘Behind the U.S. Navy’s Killer Drone Strategy Shift

    The U.S. Navy has chosen to develop an unmanned carrier-based aerial refueling tanker, instead of a robotic stealth bomber in a decision that, in effect, kills two birds with one stone.

    Firstly, it gives the service a chance to learn how to operate a drone from a flattop. Secondly, the Navy needs an organic carrier-based aerial refueling capability to extend the range of its stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighters and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. As an added bonus, it also takes some of the pressure off the hard-ridden tactical fighter fleet.

    “I want to get something on the deck of an aircraft carrier—unmanned—as quickly as we can with a legitimate role to play because there is so much we have got to learn there,” Adm. John Richardson, U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute on February 12. “So many unexplored questions.”

    That is why the Navy has changed its strategy. While in previous years, the service had hoped to develop a modestly stealthy Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft to afford the carrier air wing an organic persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and light strike capability, the new effort—called the Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS)— is a much more modest effort. Moreover, it’s a far cry from the ultra-stealthy, ultra long-range deep strike capability that many in Congress and the Washington think-tank community had originally wanted.

    The Navy is choosing to follow a path of incremental evolution because the service does not yet fully understand how operate an unmanned air vehicle from a carrier…’

    Mark Collins

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