June 24, 2013
Credit: Lockheed Martin
It is not just because operating manned and unmanned aircraft side by side from a carrier deck will be hard that the U.S. Navy is moving cautiously to deploy unmanned technology. After the debacle of the General Dynamics/McDonnell Douglas A-12, and the delays to the Lockheed Martin F-35C, the Navy wants a program success. To that end, the service has structured its first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft program to provide a modest capability at minimum risk.
Following on from the precedent-setting naval Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D), the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) program essentially is a technology development effort that will leave behind a residual operational capability.
Before that, such is its caution, the Navy will fund all four Uclass competitors—Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman—through to preliminary design reviews (PDR) for their Uclass concepts. This will give the service a better understanding of the capabilities—and risks—of the competing designs before launching the technology development (TD) phase.
“We are not even at Milestone A, but the Navy has developed a capabilities development document [CDD], which is typically a prerequisite for Milestone B,” says Bob Ruszkowski, Uclass capture manager for Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.
“They took quite a bit of time to get to the CDD. For the last three years, industry has worked hard to provide a lot of information to help them understand the art of the possible and help formulate the requirements in the CDD,” he says. “We know the key performance parameters and key system attributes. We've seen draft specifications derived from [both],” he says. “The Navy has asked for feedback—heading checks—on what will have a large versus a small impact.”
Now industry is waiting for a request for proposals (RFP) for the PDR phase, which will be an 8-9 month effort. Competitors then expect another RFP for the “air segment” phase, under which the Navy will select a single contractor to design, build, test and deploy the Uclass air vehicles. A separate “ground segment” program will independently and concurrently develop a common control system to be used first with Uclass, but ultimately with the MQ-4C Triton, MQ-8B/C Fire Scout and other Navy UAVs. The Navy will act as lead system integrator for the overall Uclass program.
The Navy has little choice but to follow this measured path. “The fiscal 2013 defense bill has specific language that Uclass must complete PDR before downselect,” says Ruszkowski. “The Navy has to have understood the technical maturity [of the bids] when it comes to reviewing the air-segment proposals.”