AUVSI: Navy wants UCLASS sooner than 2018

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A strategy unveiled by the US Navy three months ago to install a stealthy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) aboard aircraft carriers by 2018 may seem ambitious, but the service's top officer wants the capability to arrive even faster.

"For me, [the schedule is] too damn slow," says Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations. "Seriously, we've got to have a sense of urgency about getting these things out there."

The remarks signal a new sense of urgency by the Navy's top leadership to quickly move forward on UAS technology, where the service has lagged the US Air Force and Army.

Roughead, however, acknowledged that the Navy faces unique challenges to operate UAS that depend on reliable communications around warships that are essentially antenna farms.

"I'm not minimizing the challenge but we really need to lean into that and look at how we can do it more quickly," Roughead says.

In May, the Navy issued a request for information for an unmanned, carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft. The surprise solicitation has attracted interest from several ongoing programs, such as the Northrop Grumman X-47, Lockheed Martin RQ-170 and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Sea Avenger. Boeing also plans to participate in the competition.

"We've got to get that capability out there because I think it can make a huge difference," Roughead says.

The UCLASS fleet is intended to primarily provide long-endurance surveillance mission in contested airspace. Roughead also described other benefits for the Navy.

"You spend a lot of time doing carrier qualifications. Even when we're ashore we do a lot of training in our outlying fields to be able to be sure that our young men and women can come safely aboard the ship," he says. "With unmanned systems you can do away with a lot of that."

Roughead, however, made it clear that the Navy's pursuit of a carrier-based surveillance and strike UAS would not come at the expense of its plan to buy about 260 Lockheed F-35C Joint Strike Fighters.

"One thing I would also want to have as rapidly as we want to engage with the unmanned system on carriers," Roughead says. "We're also moving forward with JSF."