The Navy plans to load their next generation carrier drone with a wide range of weapons, including GPS-guided precision-strike air-to-ground weapons called Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, service officials said.
The Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft is being designed as a carrier-launched Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting, or IRS&T, technology, will also be designed to accomodate a next-generation Active Electronically Scanned Array radar, or AESA.
The exact weapons payload to be engineered on the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft is still a work-in-progress and something that will be influenced by the competing vendors offering designs, said Capt. Beau Duarte, program manager, unmanned carrier aviation program office.
While weaponization for the UCLASS is not planned as an immediate step, it is considered by developers to be an integral part of the platform’s future capabilities. It is expected the UCLASS will be able to draw from most of the weapons currently being used on the Navy’s carrier wings.
“Weapons requirements will be defined in the final proposals. It is up to the vendors to come back with proposals and leverage what is available,” Cmdr. Pete Yelle, UCLASS/UCAS-D requirements officer.
While adding weapons will be a significant future development for the UCLASS platform, the technology is still primarily intended as an ISR platform, Navy officials said.
“The UCLASS is primarily an ISR platform. The future strike capability is important but not the main reason for this system,” said Navy official familiar with the program.
In fact, there are fears inside the Defense Department that piling too many requirements onto the UCLASS could make the aircraft too expensive and possibly kill it.
As for the sensors, the Navy plans a wide array of intelligence-gathering capabilities for the UCLASS, he added.
The UCLASS has a threshold capability requirement for “multi-int” or multiple intelligence sensors. The UCLASS will be able to work operations over land and water using EO/IR , or electro-optical/infrared sensors, FMV or full-motion video and eventually a fifth-generation AESA radar, Yelle said.
Yelle said that the integrated suite of sensors will also have what’s called “moving target indicator” sensors able to detect threats in maritime and land environments.
“It will have a persistent strike capability. That is what we intend this to be. It is not going to replace the Joint Strike Fighter. It is going to augment and enhance the air wing,” Yelle said.
A demonstrator air vehicle engineered as a test-bed aircraft to inform the UCLASS effort called the X-47B has been undergoing technical testing aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia. Some of the testing is intended to assess the air vehicle’s ability to land in stressful environmental conditions such as high winds.
As the first UAS of its kind to land on a carrier, the X-47B made history last summer upon first landing aboard the USS Bush. The ongoing tests are an effort to refine and improve the technology for the future UCLASS program of record.
“We’ve had great success of our evaluation of an unmanned system which is much more than just an air vehicle. The approach has been digitized and we’ve accumulated some great knowledge regarding how to take off and land consistently at the same point,” Duarte added.
The testing is in part designed to assess technical integration of the control systems, electronics on the ship, data links and connection to the air vehicle itself. This is designed to inform development of the concepts of operation, or CONOPS, for the UCLASS.
The Navy plans to release a draft request for proposal, or RFP, for UCLASS to industry next month and then formally submit a final technology-development phase RFP by the Spring of next year, Duarte said.
“We’re excited about moving forward with UCLASS with a draft request for proposal. This will get us proposals for the air vehicle. We are also developing a carrier segment and a control system and connectivity segment. This is a very complex integration challenge — to provide the capability that will revolutionize Naval warfare,” he explained.
Initial delivery of the UCLASS system, which includes the air vehicle, network and control systems, will take place three to six years after the contract award, he added.
In the meantime, the UCLASS program is making progress with preliminary design review contracts awarded this past summer; the Navy awarded four contracts valued at $15 million to Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
“The preliminary design reviews are going well. We’re half way through. The point is to inform the final proposals for the technology development phase. They will get a chance to get feedback on their designs so what they submit for their proposals will have a degree of maturity,” Duarte said.
Overall, Navy program developers and leaders are enthusiastic about the advantages they feel UCLASS will bring to the fleet.
“We really need an organic ISR&T platform inherent to the air wing. Currently that does not exist and we rely on a lot of external sources. The capability will significantly enhance and force multiply the air wing and the strike group as a whole,” said Yelle.