It’s not often that ComNavOps praises or defends Navy leadership but this is one of those moments. I’ve posted that the Navy’s UAV/UCLASS/UCAV program is an example of a well run program (see, "The Navy's Best Run Program"). It is proceeding in reasonable steps which are providing progress and cost restraint simultaneously. The program has not given in to PowerPoint hype and run-amok technology insertion. The Navy has recently initiated the process of requesting proposals from industry for the next step in UCLASS development which will focus on surveillance (ISR) capabilities. Unfortunately, this reasonable step has met with resistance from a Congress that appears to want a do-everything, stealthy, deep penetration strike UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike).
Rather than continue to develop the UCLASS in measured steps while exercising fiscal restraint and responsibility, Congress wants the Navy to once again try to leap a generation of technology. You’ll recall that previous attempts to leap generations have given us the LCS, JSF, and Ford among other notable failures.
DoD Buzz website posted an article on the subject and summed the controversy up,
“The thrust of the debate centers around [whether] the platform can adapt over time or whether features like stealth and electronic attack need to be engineered into the original design at from the start. Forbes (ed.: Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the HASC) wants those capabilities from the beginning even though it will increase the drone’s initial price tag.”
Forbes recognizes the impact on cost of trying to leap ahead and yet wants to do it anyway. History tells us with absolute certainty that such an effort will derail the steady progress of the program and result in a bloated, failed platform mired in cost overruns and schedule delays.
The subcommittee does raise one noteworthy point. Language from the budget markup of the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Randy Forbes states,
“The disproportionate emphasis in the requirements on unrefueled endurance to enable continuous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to the carrier strike group, a capability need presumably satisfied by the planned acquisition of 68 MQ-4C Tritons ..."
There is a bit of an apparent duplication at work. The two unmanned systems would seem to be filling the same niche. Not having seen an operational concept for either of the systems I can’t evaluate the apparent duplication. Perhaps they’re going to perform similar but different roles. On the other hand, the Navy’s history of questionable decision making doesn’t exactly rule out a complete and unnecessary duplication! A third alternative is that the Navy views the requested UCLASS as simply a developmental step intended to prove out integration in an air wing while still getting a degree of usefulness out of the aircraft. If so, that would be a perfectly reasonable approach. I haven’t seen any indication of the quantity of UCLASS aircraft the Navy wants. If they only want a few, that would suggest they view it as a developmental step. If they want dozens, that would suggest they view it as a finished product and would legitimize the duplication question.
The article goes on to state,
“While not willing to comment publicly on plans for stealth or low-observability for UCLASS, Navy program officials have consistently maintained that the program’s requirements do call for a weaponized strike platform as well as an ISR vehicle. However, the weapons capability is something that is described as incremental, meaning it will be engineered into the platform over time, Navy officials explained.”
Again, this type of incremental approach is perfectly reasonable and ComNavOps just recently stated that the JSF should have been developed this way (see, "F/A-18 Hornet - An Evolultionary JSF?").
As I’ve stated before, the UCLASS program is a rare example of a well run program. I would hate to see it become the flying LCS with lots of unattainable technology crammed in for no good reason. Let’s be realistic. UAVs are crashing constantly. They’re not exactly a finished product, yet. We don’t know what the real world difficulties of trying to operate UAVs over extremely long distances in an electromagnetically challenged environment are. We don’t know what the real world difficulties of trying to operate an unmanned aircraft in and around a carrier are. It would be foolish and fiscally unwise to attempt to leap ahead as Congress wants. We need to walk for a while before we attempt an all-out sprint. The Navy should bring a few UCLASS aircraft into an airwing and gain some operational experience and understand the technological difficulties before committing to the B-2 bomber version of UCLASS.
Let’s not repeat the LCS fiasco. Hold your ground, Navy. ComNavOps stands with you on this one.
(1) http://www.dodbuzz.com/2014/07/10/pentagon-reviews-uclass-strike-capabilities/, DoD Buzz, Kris Osborn, "Pentagon Reviews UCLASS Strike Capabilities",