Analysts debate USN's UCLASS competition

Washington DC
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The US Navy will fund four unmanned carrier launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft designs until preliminary design reviews (PDRs) are conducted, but analysts are divided as to why the service is choosing to do so.

The navy is currently working on finalising its formal request for proposals for the UCLASS, which should be released imminently, but a draft of the service's proposed specifications has been given to industry. Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are expected to submit bids to develop the UCLASS aircraft.

Robert Ruszkowski, who leads Lockheed's UCLASS capture team, says the USN is going to down select to a single design after a PDR because of specific Congressional language written into the fiscal year 2013 defense appropriations bill. "It's important for the navy to have a very informed view of the technical maturity and the art of the possible before they embark on the next phase of the programme," he says.

Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group says that part of the reason the USN is keeping all four UCLASS designs funded into a PDR is to help preserve the aerospace industrial base. "It's one of the few new airframe competitions in town and keeping design teams intact is absolutely essential," he says. The PDR covers all of the preliminary engineering for an aircraft, including all of its structure and subsystems.

But Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute, disagrees. "I don't think so," he says. "I think the real issue for them was the navy really isn't sure what it wants, and that's a good thing." Carrier-borne unmanned aircraft are an entirely new concept and the USN needs to experiment, much like what the service did in the early days of naval aviation. The four aircraft designs are quite dissimilar and range from General Atomics' Predator-derived offering to Lockheed's bat-winged design, Goure notes.

But keeping four aircraft designs going until PDRs are conducted could be expensive, Aboulafia says. It is not clear that the USN has the money to keep all four contractors in the running until it down selects to a single design. "It does start to resemble the cash profile of a full-up development programme," he says.

One place money could be siphoned off from is the USN's Lockheed F-35C variant, Aboulafia says. The navy has always been tepid in its enthusiasm for the carrier-borne stealth fighter. "There might be a choice between the F-35C and this, and there are people in the navy who would prefer that this does indeed force some sort of crisis there," he says. "[It's] more than a hedge, but actually a wedge."

Meanwhile, one way that the USN could limit the cost of keeping four aircraft design teams active into a PDR is by strictly limiting the requirements, Goure says. That would avoid "gold plating", but also let the service explore carrier-borne unmanned aircraft concepts of operation without investing in a massively complicated and expensive system. "I would really argue what they ought to do is water [the requirements] down to the bare minimum," Goure says. "This is going to be a throw-away, what you're really going to look to is gen-two or gen-three."

There are some indications that the USN is working to strictly limit the UCLASS requirements, however industry sources have concerns about certain aspects of the draft requirements which might increase costs. But the USN will likely manage the UCLASS programme very carefully because the service is cognisant of driving up costs, Goure says. At the same time, it is aware of the importance of the UCLASS effort. "This is the first of the next big step in unmanned vehicles," Goure says.