Navy Official: UCLASS Requirements Still Up in the Air

By Allyson Versprille

The requirements for the future unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft are still being debated, a senior Navy official said.

Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisitions, said the stakes are high.

“If you get the requirements right, the program has a chance. If you don’t get the requirements right, the program does not have a chance” to succeed, he said at a Navy League breakfast in Arlington, Virginia, on Sept. 9.

Much of the debate surrounds what missions the aircraft will be called upon to perform, Stackley said. Some within the Defense Department view the plane as primarily an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. Others, including prominent lawmakers on the congressional armed services committees, have envisioned a deep-strike aircraft with high stealth capabilities. 

The mission requirements, once they are decided, will dictate what kind of capabilities need to be built into the system from the very beginning versus relying on a more modular design approach, Stackley said.

“That’s a fundamental decision that has to be made in terms of what the mission and operation is going to be that characterizes that platform over its life …. and therefore what do you have to design in day one that you’re not going to be able to upgrade later?” he said. “We’re talking about starting a major aviation program that’s going to be flying for probably a quarter century, and how far do you go in terms of what capability you build into that aircraft?”

Until those questions are answered, the UCLASS will remain in limbo.

“This program is in acquisition hell right now,” Stackley said. “It has been inside the building for three years just trying to get out to see the light of day. We’ll debate on it some more this fall with [the office of the secretary of defense] and determine whether or not we’ve got the right program for not just the Navy [but] for the nation.”

Once the requirements are settled on and the program moves forward, Stackley estimated it would likely be five to 10 years before the UCLASS is operational. He wants to get the system out to the fleet as quickly as possible.

“The Navy views this as a critical program, and we’ve got to leverage what unmanned [capability] offers to our air wing sooner rather than later,” he said.

Stackley raised the possibility that other countries might want to acquire the UCLASS, especially U.S. allies in Asia.

“We’re also going after jointness and international” partnerships in Navy procurement programs, he said. “One thing that we’re finding is the more that China steps out, the more interest other nations in the region have with teaming up with America.”

Topics: Aviation

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