U.S. Navy Is Cautious On Carrier-Launched UAV

By Graham Warwick
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Over this time, Uclass has converged on a requirement for persistence and a focus on the surveillance mission, but with a light-strike capability of carrying any 250-lb. weapon in the Navy's inventory. The basic payload will be an electro-optical/infrared/laser-designator sensor, with growth to a radar. Uclass also will carry a signals-intelligence payload, to be part of a family of systems planned to replace the Navy's Lockheed EP-3Es.

The Navy's requirement is to maintain a 24/7 surveillance orbit a specified distance from the carrier. Bidders are not discussing performance details, but because of the carrier deck cycle—the cadence between aircraft launch and recovery waves—Uclass “will need at least 12 hours of persistence,” says Ruszkowski.

The requirement for survivability is shaped by a desire to operate Uclass in contested airspace, not initially but eventually. “Lockheed Martin's approach is to offer a system that can readily expand through retrofit. It will be inherently survivable, but we can add capabilities later that will make it stealthy. It will be inherently low-observable, but does not have to begin service with all the attributes,” Ruszkowski says. “Lockheed's approach will allow the Navy to operate in areas where [Triton] will not be able to, through stealth, emissions control and signature management.”

Lockheed is proposing an all-new design for Uclass, a tailless flying wing, but is drawing on “50 years of unmanned-aircraft experience, including the low-observable RQ-170 Sentinel,” he says. “We've not done it for an aircraft carrier, but we can draw on the F-35C, which is qualifying all stealth requirements for the carrier. Risk is mitigated by integrating proven technologies. We are confident we can meet the Navy's schedule.”

Ruszkowski does not believe offering an all-new design puts Lockheed at a disadvantage over Northrop, with its X-47B UCAS-D experience, or GA-ASI, which is flying land-based prototypes of its Predator C Avenger. “Naval Air Systems Command has a strict regime of testing for carrier qualification, for any aircraft. There are no short cuts,” he says.

The Navy plans to deploy an initial Uclass capability at the end of the TD phase—a single squadron of 4-6 aircraft on a carrier. “It's a hybrid program, which is a challenge. There will be additional development after initial deployment,” he says. Deployment is expected 3-6 years after contract award—but before 2020—a wide date range “the Navy has not explained precisely,” Ruszkowski notes.

Because the program will be budget-constrained, it is likely the flight-test aircraft will make up the first deployed squadron. “The service-life specification goes beyond a test program, whereas the X-78B was always designed as an experiment, so has a limited life,” says Ruszkowski.

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