US policy group rallies to save Navy's UCAS-D programme

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A defence policy group has warned that the US Navy’s institutional reluctance and budgetary pressures are combining to threaten the future of unmanned, stealthy aircraft operating from its aircraft carriers.

Moreover, the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) views an emerging crisis facing the service’s Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D) programme as a potentially critical blunder for national security policy.

The USN launched the six-year UCAS-D programme last August, but CSBA analysts think the odds that navy officials will cancel the effort in next year’s budget are “more than 50:50”, says senior fellow Tom Ehrhard. Opposition comes principally from active duty naval aviators, he says, while the service’s aviation budget also faces pressure from new manned aircraft programmes.

Ehrhard believes preserving the UCAS-D programme (X-47B pictured, below) is “absolutely critical” to the future of carrier-based, unmanned strike aircraft, and says the demonstration also may help break down naval aviation’s “psychological barrier”.

 
© Northrop Grumman

Bob Work, the CSBA’s vice-president of strategic studies, adds of a potential cancellation: “It’d be like a submariner saying: we really don’t get that nuke-powered stuff.”

Two UCAS-Ds are now in manufacturing, with the first of these 65% complete and scheduled to fly at Edwards AFB, California in late 2009. The programme is expected to be the precursor for a next-generation combat aircraft called the navy-unmanned combat air system (N-UCAS).

“The N-UCAS programme is developing technologies leading to an unmanned longer-range carrier-based aircraft capable of being air-refuelled to provide greater [aircraft carrier] stand-off capability, to expand payload and launch options, and to increase naval reach and persistence,” says programme manager Capt Martin Deppe. The programme is “executing as planned”, he adds.

An interim programme review will be held on 2 July to update staff from the Office of the Secretary of Defense on progresss to date. The navy is seeking almost $276 million for the UCAS-D project during fiscal year 2009, bringing its total requested funding for the FY2007-13 period to roughly $1.5 billion.