Upon first hearing that the Navy had opted to forego any real decision about the future of UCAV/UCLASS and carrier aviation in general, in favor of a simplified unmanned tanker (RAQ-25 “CBARS”), ComNavOps applauded that small portion of the decision. Using front line combat aircraft as tankers was an idiotic decision of monumental proportions. Thus, a small, cheap, dedicated tanker was a good thing. If it was to be unmanned and offer the Navy some on the job carrier UAV integration and autonomous programming experience, all the better. The key, though, to my reaction was the initial description of the tanker as simple – which implied cheap and small.
Now, however, we’re seeing the first hints that the small, cheap, unmanned tanker is morphing into a complex, multi-function, combination strike/ISR/tanking platform.
“The Fiscal Year 2017 budget request includes an $84 million line item for CBARS but will also build off of $434 million in future unmanned carrier aviation money that was included into the FY 2016 Omnibus bill, Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, deputy chief of naval operations for integration of capabilities and resources, told USNI News in a Wednesday interview.
“So UCLASS doesn’t exist but the CBARS will be able to draw that money. That’s why in one reason in ‘17 we didn’t ask for a whole lot more,” Mulloy said.
Mulloy said the Navy was patching together a submission to the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) that amounted to an 80-percent solution for the initial UCLASS design.
“We’re probably going to drop some of the high-end specs and try to grow the class and increase the survivability [later],” Mulloy said.
“It has to be more refueling, a little bit of ISR, weapons later and focus on its ability to be the flying truck.” (1)
Did you catch the little money trail, there? This program, for an ostensibly simple and cheap tanker, is already budgeted at $84M plus the $435M ($519M total). That’s over half a billion dollars and we haven’t even gotten to the request for proposal stage, yet!!!!!!
Requirements that amount to 80% of the UCLASS ???? What happened to a simple, dedicated tanker?
Here’s more evidence that the tanker will also be a strike and ISR platform.
“Lescher [Rear Adm. William Lescher, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for budget] added that CBARS would also retain a limited strike capability in addition to an ISR role for the carrier.” (2)
Strike and ISR????
So, we’re seeing that, far from a simple, dedicated unmanned tanker, the Navy now wants a near-UCLASS aircraft. You know what happens when requirements grow beyond the immediate function – costs and schedules also grow. Ask the LCS program what happens when requirements run amok. We’re going to be looking at a $200M tanker that will require decades to field, if the Navy doesn’t exercise some common sense restraint. This is a very worrisome development at such an early point in the process – requirements only grow with time and this tanker appears to already be trending towards a vastly overdesigned platform.
This is starting to look as if the Navy is attempting to get the “limited strike” and ISR UCLASS that it wanted all along, but that Congress and others rejected, under the guise of a simple tanker and is using the “tanker” marketing ploy to sell it to Congress.
Given that a carrier only needs around 4 tankers for each carrier air wing, which is only 36 aircraft (and they don’t need that many – they could just cross deck for each deployment), there won’t be any economy of scale. This could balloon well past $200M.
Someday we’re going to look back at this program and wonder where and how a simple tanker program went wrong. Well, it started right here and right now.
The Navy appears to be pathologically incapable of learning lessons.
(1) USNI News, “WEST: NAVAIR’s Unmanned Aerial Tanker Acquisition Will Be Leaner Than Previous UCLASS Effort”, Sam LaGrone,
February 19, 2016,
(2) USNI News, “Unmanned CBARS Tanker Air Segment Draft RFP Expected Later This Year”, Sam LaGrone,