UAS & Robotics

Mabus says delays are hurting UCLASS development

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus

Mabus at a Senate hearing earlier this year.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus expressed frustration today over the delays with the Navy’s carrier-based unmanned aircraft program, saying the debate over how the aircraft will be used is hindering its development.

The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, on which the Navy plans to spend $3 billion by 2020, is being held up by a debate with Congress over whether its role would be primarily intelligence, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) with limited strike capabilities, or primarily strike with limited ISR, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

Some in Congress, such as Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), want to emphasize strike, while the Navy has leaned toward ISR, with Mabus saying UCLASS is part of a more incremental approach toward autonomous systems with deep strike capability.

Meanwhile, UCLASS’ development languishes.

“We’ve had [a request for proposal]…ready to go for a year and a half/two years now, and it’s been held up because of a look at overall ISR systems,” Mabus said at an event at the American Enterprise Institute.  “I don’t know if the Navy sees UCLASS as ISR … That’s certainly one role, but it’s got a lot more roles … One of the reasons we’d like to go ahead and get the RFP out, is that we’d like to find out what’s available out there in industry.”

Mabus said UCLASS would have strike capabilities but operate in less contested areas and would serve as a bridge to fully autonomous systems capable of strike, which he expects sometime in the 2020s. GAO, in its report, said UCLASS currently stands to be ready for early operational capacity in 2022, two years later than planned.

Another focus of unmanned aircraft development is military-to-military interoperability among aircraft, Mabus said. In fact, the Navy recently published a solicitation for the sale of the ScanEagle small unmanned aircraft and parts to Lebanon. The Navy currently uses the ScanEagle as a short-range ISR system that is catapult-launched and recovered via a hook system aboard ships. Mabus stressed the importance of interoperability with partners and how foreign arms sales help to facilitate this necessity. “[I]t’s in our national interest” to have as much interoperability with partners in terms of military capacity he stated. 

In that regard, Mabus warned that other militaries are also exploring systems similar to the UCLASS noting that “we’re not the only ones.” 

About the Author

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

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