Saturday, August 30, 2014

UCLASS Meeting

As you probably know, the Navy’s UCLASS design requirements list for industry has been expected to be issued for some time, now, but has just been delayed again as various factions call for additional and sometimes conflicting capabilities.

ComNavOps has received a recording of the most recent Navy UCLASS design meeting.  Here is the verbal transcript of the meeting of a select group of Admirals and Congressmen, chaired by a Navy Captain, and tasked with finalizing the design requirements.

Captain:  Thank you all for coming.  You’ve all read the list of intel, surveillance, and recon capabilities that are currently planned.  We just want to take one final pass and make sure we’ve got a tight, focused set of requirements and haven’t missed anything.  Does anyone have any comments?

Voice:  Son, we need to add at least a minimal strike capability to ensure maximum utilization of this thing.

Captain:  That’s been discussed and we could probably add that without a major impact on the program but …

Voice:  No buts, son.  Make it happen!

Another Voice:  And tanking!  We’re short tankers so we should give it a tanking capability.

Captain:  We are short of tankers but that would greatly increase the size and …

Several Voices:  Add it!

Captain:  I suppose we could delay the program briefly and look into …

Yet Another:  Hey, there’s no point being able to strike if it can’t fight its way to the target.  It needs a top notch air to air capability.

Captain:  We may be trying to add too many …

Congressional Voice:  It’s not getting through my committee unless it has a bomb load at least equal to a B-2.

Chorus:  Add it!

Captain:  But that would hugely increase the size and the carrier footprint is already …

Still Another:  If we’re increasing the size, why not give it a bigger radar so it can do AEW like the Hawkeye?

Chorus:  Add it!

One More:  If their group gets to add AEW, we want ASW.  Make sure it can drop sonobuoys.

Chorus:  Add it!

Voice in Back:  You know, if we add a vertical lift like the V-22, this thing would really be transformational.

Chorus:  Add it!

Voice:  What about some gunship capability?

Chorus:  Add it!

Another Voice:  Paratroop.  That’s what this thing needs.  Deploying paratroops.

Chorus:  Add it!

Still Another:  Humanitarian assistance is a core mission.  What about a large cargo bay?

Chorus:  Add it!

Captain:  Gentlemen, remember we were just supposed to finalize the requirements and make sure we hadn’t missed any last detail.  I’m not sure it’s a good idea to add so many …

Chorus:  Add it!

Captain:  But the cost and schedule will …

Chorus:  Add it! Add it!  Add it!

Captain (barely audible):  I really need to look into that truck driving school.

Faint Voice as the Meeting is Ending:  Could this thing act as a space shuttle?


  1. The Navy might have to have two separate versions, one optimized for ISR/Tanking (low stealth/no attack avionics,) and another optimized for deep strike (high stealth/bulletproof C&C/attack avionics to support EA or kinetics.) Some savings can be realized by sharing basic systems and engines, but the problem is that they cannot afford UCLASSs and the F-35, and the F/A-XX. An incremental approach seems sound, but the Navy needs a deep strike capability now, so the more complex strike version would be my choice.

    1. Charley, one of the challenges with the UCLASS in the deep strike role is that the Navy already has a proven unmanned deep strike aircraft, the Tomahawk, as a few readers have pointed out. The question becomes, what does an autonomous deep strike UAV bring to the table that a Tomahawk does not?

      Yes, the UAV has some advantages such as return capability in the event it survives its deep penetration - questionable against a peer - and reusability in less demanding scenarios - if its less demanding, one has to ask why we need it. On the other hand, it is less flexible than a manned aircraft and takes up valuable real estate on the carrier when compared to a Tomahawk.

      In other words, the deep strike UCLASS excels at a very specific and rarely needed role - deep strike against a high threat peer. Is that worth an entire expensive program when we can just salvo Tomahawks and accomplish the same thing?

      Too many people view the deep strike UAV as somehow invulnerable and that we can use them over and over again. The reality is that they will probably suffer a greater attrition rate than manned aircraft and will become one-way or short use platforms. Again, as a one-way or short use aircraft would we be better sticking with a $1M Tomahawk versus a $150M UAV?

    2. ComNavOps, if either the Tomahawk or else some other type of VLS-launched standoff weaponry is to be substituted for manned and unmanned high-capability strike aircraft, that standoff weaponry must be capable of being retargeted in real time based upon up-to-the minute targeting information supplied by on-scene ISR assets which are operating in close proximity to the adversary's forces.

      These two capabilities don't exist yet; and moreover, there is likely to be an issue with properly supporting current fleet defense requirements if some number of VLS cells currently assigned to AAW, BMD, and ASW missions were to be reallocated to handling offensive strike missions.

      Under static or declining DoD budgets, placing more emphasis on VLS and on standoff weaponry types means taking money from NAVAIR to pay for it. More Tomahawks means fewer F-35s and fewer UCLASS. More Burke Class Flight III's means fewer Ford Class CVNs. Try selling that approach to Randy Forbes and see how far you get. (Not that I don't think this alternative approach ought to be given the most thorough possible study.)

    3. Charley, to be useful as a deep strike platform, a larger more complex strike version of the UCLASS needs a combination of highly secure data communication links plus onboard Artificial Intelligence software which can allow the aircraft to survive in a high threat combat environment if the communications links to it are lost.

      Those communication links and that AI software are many years away from being mature enough to handle the demands of a fully functional strike capable UCLASS.

      If we rush into building a large scale full capability UCLASS with communication links and with AI software which are not up to the job, then those large UCLASS will either sit in their hangars or else be used for roles that are more optimally handled by other kinds of manned or unmanned aircraft.

    4. I'm thinking that either type of UCLASS would be large: the ISR version needs to carry a lot of fuel (and/or subsonic) to meet endurance requirements / pass significant gas. The strike variant needs to be large to carry the fuel and a meaningful weapons load out internally (something the F-35 cannot.) I'm not sure that we can afford to wait for the autonomous / AI technology to be developed before the strike version can be fielded - but certainly could be added later. I'm much more confident that target lists / priorities and some rules can be programmed in the mission planning stage, and targets can be dynamically changed / aborted if relatively simple conditions are met/not met. As for the data links, again I'd keep it simple in the beginning. Anyway, I do see the logic behind fielding a simpler variant first for mid-ranged ISR and tanking - but I would want both to be highly common.

    5. Scott, my understanding is that the Tomahawk Block IV which is currently being acquired does have the ability to re-target in flight and is capable of real-time targeting via operator control.

    6. Not sure an all persistent ISR platform is achievable. Yes it will need to carry allot of fuel to be persistent, but what happens when the aircraft needs to return to the carrier. Fuel fraction so high the aircraft is more like a kite than a aircraft. The control authority to land such an aircraft would require more avionics and control surfaces that will increase baseline weight and therefore make a heavier aircraft and would need more fuel fraction and therefore more weight and will defeat the purpose of a persistent ISR platform. So the real question is can they build a persistent ISR aircraft that can operate off a Carrier under those conditions?

    7. Anon, that's an interesting comment. I don't have the technical knowledge to answer that but it's a fascinating question. Thanks!

    8. "Scott, my understanding is that the Tomahawk Block IV which is currently being acquired does have the ability to re-target in flight and is capable of real-time targeting via operator control."

      Well, according to Raytheon they can.

      "The latest variant (Tomahawk Block IV) includes a two-way satellite data-link that enables the missile to be retargeted in flight to preprogrammed, alternate targets. In 2013, Raytheon delivered the 3000th Tomahawk Block IV missile to the U.S. Navy. The Block IV design was initiated as both a cost savings and a capability improvement effort.

      Raytheon and the U.S. Navy are now enhancing this already sophisticated weapon. Planned upgrades to the Tomahawk Block IV include: upgraded communications, a more powerful warhead, and a new seeker designed to hit moving targets at sea or on land in darkness and all kinds of weather."

      The biggest knock against the Tomahawk is its lack of LO. And would it be hard to make a low flying cruise missile hard to see in an affordable manner? Not super stealth. Just harder.

      I have to admit, I'm in the 'KISS' opinion group for UCLASS. At least for now. I don't doubt that the Navy needs a long term, long range LO drone at some point. But biting all that off right now...

      I could see maybe, maybe seeing if you can hang a LRASM on one to pop targets of opportunity like we have with the Reapers. But going whole hog, after the JSF experience, is insane and inviting cost overruns and a cancelled UCLASS.

      We have to remember that these things are going to be purchased against the background of JSF acquisitions/maintanance/upgrades, so money will be tight. If its cheap(ish) it has a shot. If its a huge technical program, not so much.


    9. Dumb Question:

      If we have a LO jet (F-35C, for the sake of argument) and an LO missile (LRASM) can you hang the LRASM externally and still have a LO strike package?

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  2. I don't really see why UCLASS needs to be able to hit static targets. Thats what tomahawk is for.
    I would like it to be able to hit mobile targets though. I think the ability to carry some hellfire like missles (brimstone) would give it a useful ability for low and high intensity warfare.
    I find it hard to believe that the navy can't come up with a more suitable aircraft for tanking then an unmanned stealth plane. Really?
    Dave P

  3. Look at what we are doing in Iraq right now in bombing the Islamic State. This is a job that would be best handled by a "Naval Reaper" that all the experts are swearing is waste of time, money and effort. Instead we have Super Hornets doing the ISR and bombing missions, racking up flight hours and wearing out the airframes without these aircraft ever seeing the near-pear enemy they were meant to fight.

    So instead of a CVW being dedicated to smashing IS we could have a squadron of "Naval Reapers" doing the job right now and being assisted by the Super Hornets as needed.

    What do you see as the future, fighting enemies like IS across the globe or that war with China?

    1. USMC, are you possibly under the mistaken impression that I'm arguing against a UCLASS of some type? I'm not.

      Setting aside that this post was strictly a humorous observation of the muddled management of the UCLASS program with no position for or against anything, I have argued against taking a, so far, reasonably managed program and turing it into the next technology leaping, monetary black hole LCS of the skies. Trying to cram too much capability into a developmental program on Day One is asking for abject failure. I have nothing against taking our time and developing a simple, basic, carrier capable UAV and finding out what the challenges are with operating it, followed by a reasonable progression to strike or tanking or whatever else after we've worked out the initial bugs.

      That said, I do have doubts about the usefulness and practicality of some aspects of UAV operations. They will be subject to higher attrition rates, will cost as much or more than a manned aircraft, still require a pilot, are subject to control issues, and are less effective in certain roles. People seem to think they're some kind of miracle platform. At the moment, they are very much a niche platform. As such, jumping headlong into a mammoth LCS/JSF program is absurd and irresponsible. We need to take our time, spend wisely, develop carefully and see where the developmental and tactical path leads.

    2. No i know your stance and I completely support that point of view. The "Naval Reaper" is a distinct possibility and is technologically feasible in my mind while the high end all around bomber is not.

      Have you seen this?

      [quote]“UCLASS must include a requirement for aerial refueling, survivability, lethality and payload to have enduring utility in tomorrow’s threat environment,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee in a February letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.[/quote]

      And they want to field it in 2020...

      That would make it a far more complicated program than the JSF, that started development in 2002 and the Navy plans on IOC in 2019. UCLASS will start development in 2015 and be fielded in 2020 when it is more complicated aircraft?

    3. USMC, I have seen it, thanks! You sum it up nicely that Forbes version of UCLASS would be as complex or more (being unmanned) than the JSF and has a ridiculous time frame. It's another JSF/LCS waiting to happen.

      I also question the Reaper vs Hornet comparison especially for a low threat scenario like ISIS. What is the advantage of the Reaper? I mean this sincerely. I'm trying to game out the advantages/disadvantages and I have not yet drawn any definitive conclusion. The Reaper would save airframe hours but they would simply be placed on the Reaper which would then wear out faster. In a low threat environment, the Hornet is just as survivable and the risk to the pilot is as minimal as "combat" gets. What advantage do you see in this kind of scenario? I'm wide open to ideas on this. Educate me!

    4. Loiter time over target.

      The Hornet needs to hit a tanker every hour or so. This can easily lead to losing the target as it is passed back and forth between wing men, or even worse hitting the wrong target. This can also cause immense frustration for the men on the ground. If the Hornet acquires the target with 10 minutes of fuel left before it needs to hit the tanker it will have to pass the target off to the wing man during the approval process. This can frequently start the approval process all over again leading to a 20-25 minute CAS timeline.

      A Reaper with it's own on board weapons does not need to conduct a hand off, and does not need to constantly refuel from the tanker. Plus tankers are not always available even when they said they were going to be there. Even if the Hornet could bounce back and forth from the target to the tanker if the tanker has to RTB so does your Hornet. That means if you are the JTAC you are counting on 3 aircraft, the 2 Hornets and the tanker.

    5. That's a valid point.

      A disadvantage for the UAV might be the smaller payload. Off the top of my head, the Hornet can carry 15000 lbs or so and the Reaper around 1000 lbs. Am I right on those numbers? I wonder if the increased loiter time is offset by the smaller payload?

      Again, I'm not arguing for or against a naval Reaper - just trying to make an objective assessment. The assessment, of course, is based on the scenario/task/mission the aircraft is being asked to perform - low threat strike, in this case.

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    7. I guess i did misunderstand you then, in that i thought you were fully in the "Naval Reaper" camp. For the record I am fully in the "Naval Reaper" camp.

      Weapons payload would matter very little for a quality ISR type vehicle. The MQ-9 Reaper regularly flies with 2-500 lbs bombs and 4- Hellfire missiles and can still loiter for roughly 18 hours. It can loiter for well over 24 hours with no ordinance.

      If you look at Iraq right now a Super Hornet can only loiter over a target area for about an hour carrying 2-500 lbs bombs and a targetting pod. At the hour mark or a little bit after it has to hit a tanker. Assuming there is no land based tanking this can only be another Super Hornet. This leads to the problems described above and wears out 4 Super Hornets to keep one on station. 2 to act as ISR/strike assets and 2 to act as tankers. 4 equals 1.

      Compare that to the "Naval Reaper." One aircraft with 2-500 lbs bombs can fly over the target for 10-12 hours straight with no need for tanking, and possibly longer depending on design trade offs. Once the N-Reaper spots a target it can either strike the target itself with the 2-500 lbs bombs and continue to stay on target as a pure ISR asset or; the N-Reaper can call back to the carrier where a pair of Super Hornets is waiting with 6-500lbs bombs each. Those Super Hornets launch are briefed while enroute and strike the target and immediately begin to return to the carrier. If the carrier is 300nm away from the target they can do that without the need to tank. Worst case scenario is 2 more Super Hornets have to be launched for buddy tanking if they need that slighly longer loiter time over target. 2 equal 2, or possibly 4 equals 2.

      But at least in the last case you have the aircraft actually doing their designed role. The Hornet's high speed transit and strike capabilites are well used. The long loiter time of the N-Reaper is well used. We quit wearing out Super Hornets by having them fly endless race tracks in the sky or having them act as buddy tankers.

    8. USMC, I'm neither in nor out of the camp. Just assessing. The scenario you've described plays to the strength of the UAV and is a good fit. The question is whether the N-Reaper is a fit to enough other naval aviation missions to justify the carrier spots it would take up.

      What do you think?

    9. USMC, your point about saving wear on Hornets is valid, however, the wear is simply transferred to the UAV. We'll go through UAVs faster. If the UAV can be built for substantially less than a Hornet then the tradeoff is worth it. If they cost the same or the UAV costs more, then the net wear/cost is negative. Nothing I'm aware of indicates that the UAV is somehow more wear-resistant than a coventional aircraft.

      For example, let's assume the cost of a new Hornet is the same as a new N-Reaper. If the price of the UAV's loiter capability is that we burn through two UAVs over the lifetime of one Hornet then it's a losing proposition, at least from a pure acquisition dollars perspective.


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