UAS & Robotics

Problems ahead for Navy's carrier-based drone program

Navy X-47B carrier based drone

The prototype X-47B was the Navy’s first carrier-based UAV.


The debate surrounding the primary operational role of Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, thought to be a major pillar for the future force, could pose an existential threat to the program at large, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.    

Uncertainty and waffling over whether UCLASS’ role would consist of either mainly “surveillance with limited strike or mainly strike with limited surveillance,” has not only produced delays in the program, but could significantly the costs of the program, the report said.

The Navy’s vision for UCLASS was “to address a capability gap in sea-based surveillance and to enhance the Navy’s ability to operate in highly contested environments defended by measures such as integrated air defenses or anti-ship missiles,” according to the report. GAO said the Navy expects to spend at least $3 billion by 2020 on UCLASS. The service in 2013 awarded a total of $60 million in contracts to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman for design work.

UCLASS was highlighted in the Defense Department’s 2013 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, which called for smarter, networked drones across air, sea and land. Under this guise, UCLASS could perform critical ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities.  Being carrier-based, UCLASS would provide for greater self-reliance, especially in the context of the rebalance toward the Asia and Pacific. The U.S. military currently relies on several countries to host their unmanned aircraft.

The Navy’s Maritime Strategy, released in March, places great importance on the ability to conduct critical ISR, especially with the high-altitude, long endurance MQ-4C Triton. Additionally, the Navy indicated that it currently must heavily rely on the Air Force’s ISR capabilities. But some in Congress, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have argued that UCLASS should emphasize strike capability.

Recent success regarding the UCLASS system has also been marred by operational decisions.  Despite the UCLASS’s unmanned prototype aircraft, the X-47B built by Northrop Grumman, recently achieving the remarkable feat of successful mid-air refueling, which will significantly increase the range and ISR capabilities of unmanned aircraft, the aircraft was retired because, “costs to reconfigure the [X-47B] to behave more like the Navy’s preferred option for UCLASS would be prohibitive,” GAO said. The decision to retire the prototype has spurred a separate debate whether to keep the Unmanned Carrier Air Vehicle Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program, under which the X-47B was developed, running for more testing.

Going forward, GAO warned that, “Unsettled requirements will hinder the Navy’s ability to develop and present a business case with realistic cost and schedule estimates, and establish an acquisition program baseline.” Noting that the program’s milestones have already been delayed by two years, GAO said the Navy risks its work so far becoming obsolete by the time development is completed. “The final requirements and how similar or different they are to those used for the past preliminary design reviews, will determine the extent to which the knowledge the Navy gained is still applicable at this key juncture in the program,” the report said.  

GAO recommended that the Navy offer a report to Congress that, at a minimum, includes:

  • An updated cost estimate.
  • A schedule for holding a Milestone B review and establishing an acquisition program baseline before initiating system development.
  • Plans for new preliminary design reviews and technology maturation if more demanding requirements are validated.
  • What consideration is being given to adopting an evolutionary acquisition approach.

As the program currently stands, projections for early operational capacity on at least one aircraft carrier are slated for no earlier than fiscal year 2022, which, GAO noted, would be a delay of two years.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

Defense Systems Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.