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National Defense > Blog > Posts > RFP for Navy’s UCLASS Drone Waiting on Final Approval
RFP for Navy’s UCLASS Drone Waiting on Final Approval
By Valerie Insinna


Northrop Grumman's X-47B

Industry will have a finalized request for proposals for the Navy’s first operational carrier-launched drone by early September, its program officer said Aug. 17.

The final RFP for the unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike, or UCLASS, will be released only to the four companies competing for the contract: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman. 

“We have had continuous dialogue with our industry partners, and they have provided us feedback, corrections,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. 

“We are ready now to go forward to release the request for proposal that encompasses the technical strategy and design requirements as well as the business strategy, and we're on the precipice of releasing that RFP to the four vendors ... pending final senior Department of Defense discussions and final approval, which is now scheduled to occur over the next three weeks."

While many of its requirements are classified, Navy officials have publicly said that UCLASS must have an endurance of 14 hours and an internal payload of 1,000 pounds. It will initially operate in permissive airspace, but should be designed so that it can engage in non-permissive environments at a future date.

The program has repeatedly come under fire from legislators and defense analysts who claim the system is not ambitious enough. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, has been one of its biggest critics. 

In a July op-ed in The National Interest, Forbes stated that UCLASS’s emphasis on endurance and providing continuous intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance comes at the expense of the vehicle’s survivability and weapons payload.

“I believe strongly that the nation needs to procure an unmanned combat air vehicle platform that can operate as a long-range surveillance and strike asset in the contested and denied A2/AD [anti-access, area-denial] environments of the future,” he wrote. “To achieve this, such a system should have broadband, all-aspect stealth, be capable of automated aerial refueling, and have integrated surveillance and strike functionality.” It appears the Navy is not taking that path, he added.

Winter contended that the scrutiny from the Hill and defense analysts is not unlike other high-profile programs.

"The fact that there's been a lot of external discussion, interest, dialogue from our friends in the legislative branch all the way to the folks in the intelligence community to other elements within the Department of Defense — I've had that on my [surface warfare] programs. I've had that on my other weapons programs — so I don't see that as necessarily something different,” Winter said.

The program has also received a fair amount of criticism from industry executives, who have said that UCLASS technical details have fluctuated during the preliminary design process.

Winter said the top-level “warfighter requirements” have been stable since April 2013, but the more detailed technical specifications have been modified since then.

"The design requirements have been continually refined to ensure that we had a technically feasible solution,” he said. “We don't want to provide something to industry that they technically can't accomplish. So we've spent the due diligence over the last nine to 10 months to get the technical requirements correct.”

The result was a back-and-forth between Navy officials and company engineers to optimize survivability, payload and endurance and ensure that design specifications were attainable, he said.

The UCLASS program has two objectives, Winter said. The first is to design, mature and integrate the air vehicle, command-and-control systems and the aircraft carrier itself. The second objective is to develop the concept of operations for carrier-launched unmanned aircraft.

"When we give this to the fleet, they will determine and make lots of assessments and analysis to determine how it will be used,” he said. “So, will it be a standalone squadron? Will there be air vehicles part of another squadron, E-2 or an F-18? Those are all things that will be identified."

The Navy has not yet decided who will operate UCLASS. Winter stressed that, unlike the Army and Air Force, there is no need to manually “fly” a naval drone such as UCLASS, Triton or Fire Scout. All three are equipped with advanced computers, sensors and algorithms that autonomously control the aircraft. The human operator’s role is simply to be a “man on the loop” that can step in during an emergency.

“We've already established our manpower profile for Triton,” he said. “We're looking at the commonality of manning, training and equipping across the Tritons, the Fire Scouts and the UCLASS, so we can be more consistent across our Navy from a total manpower [standpoint including] … recruiting, training, to bringing our sailors and Marines into the fleet to operate these things."

Capt. Beau Duarte, the program manager for the X-47B unmanned aircraft that is helping formalize processes for drone integration on a carrier deck, said that a basic UCLASS capability will be turned over to the fleet sometime around 2020. During its four-year “early operational capability,” the system will undergo fleet exercises and early deployments that will help finalize the concept of operations.

“The intent is, from a maintenance perspective, to have organic Navy capability. ... From an operator perspective, we'll see,” Duarte said. “It's an autonomous system, so you don't have a stick and throttle requirement for someone at the controls, but whether that person is a pilot, a naval flight officer, enlisted, we will figure it out and those early operational deployments will help inform that decision."

Because UCLASS and other naval drones are autonomous, it is critical that communications nodes and data links cannot be compromised by cyber threats, Winter said. Program officials are evaluating whether the UCLASS requirements meet the new cyber guidance standards released by the Defense Department.

“I don't have data to back this up, [but] I believe that we have to continue to mature our cyber design activities to ensure that our systems going forward are not vulnerable to this emerging — and yet to truly be defined — cyber threat,” he said.

The Navy may need to develop “network troubleshooters” to mange and safeguard the data links that enable control of unmanned aircraft like UCLASS. “Is it an adjunct to a current skill set that already exists, or is it something new?” he asked. “We've got the time to think that through, and we're thinking through it."

Photo Credit: Navy

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