Official denies White House link to UCLASS revision

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A senior military official denies that Adm James "Sandy" Winnefeld, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (VCJCS) watered down the requirements for the US Navy's unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft on behalf of the White House.

"The vice chairman had no contact with the White House on the UCLASS requirements," says the official. "And I would not characterise as 'relaxing' those requirements."

The official was responding to charges by a number of sources that the Pentagon's Joint Requirement Oversight Council (JROC) had diluted the requirements for the new unmanned aircraft programme at the behest of the White House. The JROC is chaired by the VCJCS and consists of voting members from the US Army, USN, US Marine Corps and the US Air Force, as well as senior advisors from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Former chief of naval operations Adm Gary Roughead recently criticised the revised UCLASS programme requirements, which have deleted the aircraft's aerial refuelling capability and sharply reduced its low observables requirements. The UCLASS's required payload was also substantially reduced compared to earlier expectations.

The Pentagon says that the requirements were modified by the JROC during an 18 December, 2012 meeting. According to the Department of Defense, the UCLASS requirements were considered "within the broader unmanned aircraft portfolio and included an assessment of the platform's performance, capability, survivability and basing."

The official argues that the UCLASS requirements were not simply reduced. "The requirements were shifted for UCLASS by actually increasing them in some areas and decreasing them in others to get a different mix. Everyone seems to be in agreement with the direction the programme is heading, which should put an affordable, capable platform on carrier flight decks that will expand the navy's ability to project power within the full joint portfolio of unmanned systems."

But while there may be consensus within the JROC, former officials like Roughead are not happy with the new direction of the programme, nor are many within the USN satisfied with the new requirements. Meanwhile, outside analysts are similarly baffled. "The current UCLASS makes little sense to me," says airpower analyst Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research.

The official says the Pentagon has to consider the needs of its fighting forces across a range of national security interests, and that trade-offs have to be made. "Failing to have made the necessary trade-offs would have measurably limited UCLASS capacity in a number of critical mission areas," the official says.