Winter says the Navy expects to field the first Uclass air vehicle within three to six years of contract award; the service could be allowing for so much time so that the competition can be as inclusive as possible for bidders.
The Navy will likely select a cost-plus contract to minimize the amount of risk put on the contractor while developing the system, but it is unclear how the Navy will grade the bids, including prioritization of technology readiness for a set of basic, or threshold, requirements and objectives.
Lockheed is emphasizing survivability in order to provide the most flexibility to future commanders, Ruszkowski says. “It is our conviction that a recce platform like Uclass will need to operate in a variety of areas,” especially as the Pentagon places more emphasis on the Pacific region, he says. Though the Air Force’s Predator and Reaper fleets have been a mainstay in targeted attacks on high-value al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Yemen, these aircraft are not able to transit areas quickly and they are not considered highly survivable in contested airspace. Producing yet another UAS without the ability to penetrate highly defended areas would contribute to a “gap” in intelligence collection in these environments, Ruszkowski says.
So, the outcome of the Uclass — whether the Navy opts for a more or less survivable system — could be an indicator of whether the Pentagon considers this program to be its front-runner intelligence collector in an A2AD environment or whether this mission will be handled by other, possibly classified, programs.
Grading so-called objective capabilities — such as extra survivability in an air vehicle — has been a challenge for services in the past several years as contractors have shown more willingness to protest source selection decisions. At issue will be how the Navy can structure a competition to place value on requirements above the threshold while also keeping cost low; Winter emphasized that affordability will be key in the competition.
This type of competition tripped up the Air Force when it originally selected EADS to provide 179 KC-45 refuelers designed to start replacing the venerable KC-135 fleet. Boeing protested the selection, which was eventually recompeted, and ultimately won a contract to build its 767-based tanker.
The Navy, however, has demonstrated prowess in conducting clean competitions. Despite a protest on its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAV program from a losing Lockheed Martin/General Atomics team in 2008, government auditors upheld the choice of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk-based aircraft.
As in that competition, the Navy is focusing part of its value equation for Uclass on the aircraft design’s “effective time on station,” or ETOS. This refers to the amount of time the Uclass will be collecting intelligence; transit time to and from its mission area is not included. At issue will be a contractor’s ability to provide enough ETOS without demanding too many aircraft on the carrier, where parking and repair space is at a premium.
More endurance, however, is not necessarily better, Ruszkowski says. Ideally, the aircraft must have endurance of roughly 14 hr., he says, to best flow with a carrier’s traditional air operations cycle. Carriers typically conduct flight operations for 12 hr. and then rest for 12 hr. The Uclass could be the first aircraft launched during the day and the last recovered, taking full advantage of the “on” cycle for the deck crew but without altering manpower requirements, he says.