Longtime Congressional Critic Supportive of Changes to Navy’s Carrier-Based Drone

By Valerie Insinna

One the top congressional opponents of the Navy’s carrier-based unmanned aircraft program has seen the service’s new requirements for the platform and he is now supportive of the changes being made.

Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Service seapower and projection forces subcommittee, has long argued that the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike should be a stealthy, highly armed drone with the ability to penetrate non-permissive environments. Initial Navy requirements sought what critics saw as a less ambitious UCLASS that would primarily be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Citing the classified nature of the program, Forbes declined to elaborate on the changes the Navy is making to UCLASS requirements. However, "I'm pretty comfortable in the direction that it is [going] now,” he said Feb. 3 during a roundtable discussion with reporters.

His opinions on UCLASS have not always been so supportive. In a July 2014 op-ed in The National Interest, he wrote that the direction of the program did not adequately meet anti-access/area denial challenges.

The Navy announced yesterday in its fiscal year 2016 budget that it would delay UCLASS’ early operational capability until 2022 or 2023 to allow the service to review requirements. The request for proposals, which was due in September 2014, is now slated for 2016. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are competing for the program and have shared preliminary designs with the Navy. 

Forbes said he could not comment on why the service is releasing the RFP in 2016 if it already has an idea of what changes it will make to UCLASS requirements.

Forbes said he is generally supportive of the Navy’s newly-released budget, which includes several acquisition and modernization priorities that had been backed in previous years by the House and Senate armed service committees.

"With several of the different things that we [Congress] put on the table, the rightness of that cause was really what ultimately won it,” he said.

The request would fund the refueling and overhaul of the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and the procurement of destroyers, littoral combat ships and an LPD-17 class amphibious ship championed by Congress.

It also rolled back an effort from the 2015 budget that would have put half of the Navy’s cruiser fleet in a reduced operating status while undergoing modernization. Instead, the service proposed that two cruisers per year would begin the life extension process, with each vessel spending no more than four years out of service.

Cruisers can be modified in about a year, Forbes said, adding that he will try to decrease the amount of time the Navy moves the ships from pierside back into regular operations.  

“Can I get to one year? Probably not, but I would like to shut it down so they don't have four years to stretch it out,” he said.
He also opposes the Navy’s plan to buy only 100 tactical Tomahawk missiles in 2016 and none over the next four years.

"We launched probably 200 Tomahawks in Libya. It takes 154 … [to fully load] a guided missile submarine,” he said. “We don't have enough to load one submarine, and it takes about 196 to keep that production line open.”

Congress remains confused about the direction of the littoral combat ship, Forbes said. The small surface combatant task force — which was established by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last year to look at ways to modify the LCS as well as other existing vessels that could fill a frigate-like role — did not answer any of the Pentagon’s lingering questions about the ship’s manning, survivability, lethality, as well as the effectiveness of the its mission modules.

The Navy announced in December that, based on guidance from the task force, it would add new weapons, sensors and armor to the last 20 LCS produced.

“I think the modifications that they recommend are good modifications. They still don't address some of the concerns on the LCS," Forbes said. For instance, some of the proposed changes could marginally improve the ship’s ability to weather damage in combat. “Is marginal better than nothing? Yes." But it doesn't really answer the question of whether the ship is survivable enough, he said.

"It looks like they're telling us [that] we need to turn the LCS into a high-end surface combatant,” but the Navy already has that in its cruiser fleet, he said. “We're trying to say, ‘Make some sense out of this for us.’"

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Shipbuilding

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