December 23, 2013
Credit: MC3 Kevin J. Steinberg
Life within the Naval Air Systems Command these days resembles one of TV's overheated Washington soap operas, awash with secrets, feuds and factions. The plot has had some suitably mysterious turns, like a “clerical error” that led to publication of a $20 billion solicitation for more F/A-18s in October, which was denounced so emphatically that there was obviously something to it.
But no drama is complete without a covert subplot wrapped in another secret, which is the writing of the requirement for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) system. There are at least two groups in the Pentagon with fundamentally different visions of what Uclass should look like, and there is not much time before a clear decision must be made.
Stealth is critical to any unmanned air system, as I pointed out nine months ago (AW&ST March 18, p. 14), because an unmanned aerial system (UAS) can't shoot back, or even evade threats very well. The Uclass debate is not about whether to have stealth, but how much of it the Navy wants to pay for.
The subject of degrees of stealth is not much discussed, because of secrecy, and because companies with big financial stakes prefer that people continue to assume that all stealth is created equal.
It's not. There have been multiple levels of stealth since Northrop's Tacit Blue demonstrated all-aspect radar cross-section (RCS) reduction and the Advanced Technology Bomber requirement that led to the B-2 and called for ultra-low RCS extending into the VHF band.
There are more levels today: The Advanced Super Hornet falls between most in-service fighters and the F-35, which in turn is not quite as good in RCS as the F-22, while the F-22—and anything else that has body parts in the same size range as VHF wavelengths—isn't the same as blended-wing-body designs, from Neuron to the RQ-180 and B-2. Russia's determined effort to field mobile, powerful VHF radars makes those distinctions more important than ever.
But the Navy wants Uclass quickly and (in Pentagon terms) cheaply. Some UAS supporters believe speed and low cost are essential to overcome opposition and inertia from a pilot-dominated community. Others don't want to see a penetrating, offensive Uclass landing on a carrier, competing too obviously with the F-35C, which looks very expensive compared to a Super Hornet and has yet to land on a carrier. Nobody forgets that the seminal studies of a carrier-based armed UAS depicted it as the air wing's key long-range strike weapon.
The fast-and-cheap team's simple Uclass is reflected by General Atomics's design. It has chines and edge alignments, but the tails give the game away. It's not going to go up against a world-class defense, at least not twice. Some factions see it as a counter-terror system, a seagoing Reaper.