Navy Proceeds With Plan to Build Carrier-Based Drone Fleet
Despite budget pressures, the Navy is funding several new unmanned aircraft programs.
The industry currently has its eyes set on the unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike program, or UCLASS. The Navy is seeking an unmanned aerial system that can operate from an aircraft carrier, collect intelligence and strike targets. UCLASS is the only Navy drone program still in competition.
Four years after the request for information was released in 2010, the service will release the draft request for proposals for UCLASS at the end of the month, said Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, Naval Air Systems Command’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. Before the RFP is made available to competitors, senior leaders and a legal team will review it.
"What we want to do is minimize industry's confusion when they get the draft RFP," he said April 9 at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space exposition in National Harbor, Md. "What we've done on the front end … is make sure that we've done the due diligence to get it right up front. That review will occur within the next seven to 10 days if all the calendars align."
The solicitation will be classified and will only be made available to the four companies that were previously selected to create preliminary designs: The Boeing Co., General Atomics, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
After about a month, the Navy will host an industry day where competitors can give feedback and ask questions, Winter said. A final RFP is scheduled for release this summer, and the service plans to downselect to a single vendor in 2015.
Winter pushed back on media reports stating that delays to the program were the result of shifting UCLASS requirements.
“The [chief of naval operations] has approved his war fighter requirements, and those requirements are solid, and they've been solid since April 2013," he said. “We have to flow those down into technical design requirements, and we're ensuring that those technical design requirements are realistic, logical and affordable to provide the war fighting capability CNO has asked us to give him — and that's two 24/7 ... orbits from the aircraft carrier at a tactically significant range, providing ISR information and situational awareness back to the commander of the strike group.”
The aircraft will also have a “limited” strike capability to hit targets on the ground as well as an open architecture that will allow the service to put in new sensors and payloads as they are developed, he said.
The Navy has never operated a fleet of UASs from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Doing so is an operational challenge to the Navy in part because of the limited deck space aboard carriers. The launch and recovery of UCLASS will have to sync with the takeoffs and landings of manned aircraft such as F/A-18 Super Hornets.
The service is currently conducting trials using the X-47B demonstrator UAS built by Northrop Grumman to figure out how to integrate unmanned systems on a carrier’s air wing. That aircraft was the first drone to take off and land on an aircraft carrier during demonstrations last year on the USS George H.W. Bush.
The X-47B will be deployed aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt this summer in an effort to determine how unmanned and manned aircraft can operate simultaneously from the same flight deck, said Capt. Beau Duarte, the Navy’s program manager.
“Up until now … we’ve had exclusive use of air space on the ship. We’ve had X-47 basically owning the flight deck,” Duarte said. In the next phase, “there will be test aircraft with test pilots as part of a scripted plan to demonstrate how efficiently we can operate the X-47 on the deck with external stimuli.”
The trials will “be representative of what you would see on the deck, but it will still be a very controlled environment, he said. Tests will compare the X-47B’s ability to take off, land and clear the landing area with that of a manned aircraft. The UAS will also demonstrate its automatic wing fold capability.
Other naval unmanned aviation programs also continue to move forward despite technological and budgetary challenges.
The Navy’s MQ-4C Triton recently finished flight testing designed to evaluate the air vehicle’s performance under various altitudes and speeds. The service plans to purchase Triton aircraft for broad area surveillance. The Triton — built by Northrop Grumman — completed 568 test points, said Sean Burke, the Navy’s deputy program manager.
Northrop Grumman will deliver two aircraft in 2017 after an operational evaluation phase, Burke said. Initial operating capability will be reached in 2018 when the company will have delivered four Tritons.
However, the Navy has yet to decide how it should move forward on the Triton’s airborne sense-and-avoid system. Northrop Grumman is under contract to Exelis for the radar, which the Navy paused last year. Northrop still holds that contract, but has not received guidance from the service on how to proceed, said Mike Mackey, the company’s program manager.
The main issue with Exelis’s system is figuring out how to scale the radar to conform to the MQ-4C’s size, weight, power and cooling requirements, Burke said.
“Miniaturizing that radar suite has turned out to be more challenging than we initially thought. So we're stepping back for a minute, we're taking a very hard look at what the right way forward is, and whether... we continue with ours or whether we take a step in another direction,” he said.
All options are on the table, including rebidding the contract. However, Burke noted that there are no off-the-shelf solutions available to plug into the Triton. “If there was, we would go out and get it,” he said. An airborne sense-and-avoid system will be necessary to operate in U.S. and international airspace.
Triton will fly at high altitudes, but will have to swoop down to capture high-resolution video and images, Burke said.
“That's a tough technical solution” for a camera to have a high resolution when capturing information on the ground from up in the air, he said. “Its pretty hard with the haze and with the moisture that’s in the air from the altitude to get a reliable [electro-optical/infrared] picture” from up high. “By being able to descend, we’re able to bring up the resolution … [and] the quality of the images that we’re able to collect.”
The Navy is looking at other technologies that could fill this requirement, but so far radar is the best option, Burke said.
Northrop Grumman is also working on another Navy UAS — the MQ-8 Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter that will be deployed on the littoral combat ship.
There are two Fire Scout variants: a “Bravo” version using a Schweizer 333 airframe, and the “Charlie,” a full size unmanned version of a Bell 407. Although the Navy had planned to buy 17 MQ-8C aircraft between fiscal year 2014 and 2018, the latest budget plan showed no further procurement of the Fire Scout.
The reason why no new aircraft were funded in 2015 is that the Navy already has 40 Fire Scouts, Winter said. "So right now, based upon LCS deployments, that's enough air vehicles."
The Navy is considering the procurement of a small surface combatant to make up for the 20 LCS cut from its original 52-ship planned buy. Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s program manager for Fire Scout, said it is possible that additional aircraft could be procured in the future for use on whatever vessel the Navy decides to purchase.