This article first appeared as a Comment in the 20 August issue of Flight International.
The Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) and the US Navy must provide a more credible explanation for relaxing the requirements for the service’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme.
Its downgraded capabilities are baffling to current and former defence officials alike, and many are questioning why the Pentagon would embark on such an endeavour that does so little to address the fundamental challenges facing the fleet.
As initially envisioned, UCLASS would have provided a credible solution to the anti-access/area denial problems faced by the USN’s carrier strike groups in many parts of the world. The original concept called for an ultra-stealthy, long-range unmanned bomber that could fly deep into the heart of enemy territory while simultaneously allowing the aircraft carrier to remain at a safe distance from retaliatory strikes.
Extreme range stand-off capability was considered a vital attribute of the system because enemy anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles are posing an ever-increasing threat to carriers. Meanwhile, highly stealthy characteristics and a large weapons payload would allow the aircraft to remain inside the toughest of enemy air defences for an extended period.
However, the JROC, in a classified memo issued on 18 December last year, neutered the UCLASS. No longer would the aircraft have the ability to aerially refuel, which would extend its range. Nor would it be required to operate in highly contested airspace. Its weapons load has also been dramatically reduced to just 1,000lb (454kg). In all, this capability erosion takes it to the level of a modestly stealthy jet-powered Predator UAV.
As a result, many are openly questioning the point of the programme – especially in light of the Obama administration’s much-vaunted pivot to the Pacific. As many analysts note, a low-stealth, low-endurance and low-payload aircraft is virtually useless in that theatre.
Of course, just because the Pentagon set the specifications for UCLASS does not mean it has a sound concept of operations. And the suspicion lingers that it is being set up as a budgetary sacrifice.
If the programme is not being created simply to fail, then its limited operational abilities – the short range, the low payload, the lack of stealth – all appear to point towards an aircraft that has been designed by committee. As it stands, the navy appears to be acquiring little more than an off-white elephant.