The US Navy has decided to embed its future unmanned surveillance and strike aircraft in the same air wing that operates the Northrop Grumman E-2C/D, an airborne command and control platform.
The decision settles a philosophical debate within the navy over who should have command over the unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft during operations.
Options under review as late as August included operating UCLASS aircraft as a standalone unit, as a detachment to a wing of Lockheed Martin F-35C fighters or as a detachment to a wing that includes the E-2C/D.
Naval officials quietly announced their decision in a little-noticed directive released last month. That notice, dated 18 December, says a new UCLASS unit called the “fleet introduction team” will be established on 1 October.
The notice also says the first UCLASS unit will be a detachment to the airborne command and control logistics wing on board the carrier. That wing includes the E-2C and E-2D, a fleet that monitors airspace for hostile aircraft and missiles and directs the carrier’s strike aircraft in air combat.
The directive confirms that the navy has decided to assign the UCLASS fleet to the commander of the E-2 unit on board the carrier, a Naval Air Systems command (NAVAIR) spokeswoman tells Flightglobal.
The navy, however, has not settled on the details of how future E-2 crews will operate alongside the UCLASS fleet.
The future of the UCLASS programme remains uncertain. Four bidders – Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman – have been waiting for six months for the navy to release a final request for proposals for a contract worth up to $6 billion.
In September, Pentagon officials put UCLASS on hold after including the programme in a wider review of spending on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. That study was expected to inform decisions for the Fiscal 2016 budget request, which should be released early this year.
There has been a long-running debate over the design requirements for UCLASS. Some members of Congress have criticised the navy for relaxing a requirement to make the aircraft less detectable on radar, limiting the aircraft to mainly surveillance roles in uncontested airspace.