The US Navy's top officer emphasised new urgency for placing a stealthy, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) on carrier decks no later than 2018, but also made it clear the requirement cannot come at the expense of the Navy's commitment to the Lockheed Martin F-35C programme.
The requirement for an unmanned, carrier launched strike and surveillance (UCLASS) was released only three months ago. A draft request for proposals is expected by industry in October. Pushing new advanced military aircraft into service from this stage normally takes more than 10 years, but the chief of naval operations believes the aircraft carriers cannot wait for the capability.
"For me, [the 2018 schedule is] too damn slow," says Adm Gary Roughead, addressing the AUVSI convention on 25 August. "Seriously, we've got to have a sense of urgency about getting these things out there."
The Navy has yet to demonstrate that UAS can safely operate on the carrier deck - a cramped, busy runway buzzing with electromagnetic energy that risks interfering with the signals used to operate and control flying unmanned aircraft.
Northrop Grumman is under contract to demonstrate that capability over the next three years using the X-47B, a test that will also confirm the ability of a tailless aircraft to fly slowly enough under control to land on carrier decks.
"I'm not minimising the challenge but we really need to lean into that and look at how we can do it more quickly," Roughead says.
At the same time, the Navy is investing billions of dollars to introduce the first of about 260 Lockheed F-35C carrier-based strike fighters.
"As rapidly as we want to engage with the unmanned systems on carriers, we are also moving forward with in an incredible capability in the Joint Strike Fighter and we've got to get to that aircraft," Roughead says. "In the early [2020s], my desire is we have both manned an unmanned operating off our aircraft carriers."
UCLASS is expected to draw proposals from several competing teams, including at least the Northrop X-47, a Lockheed bid leveraging technology from the RQ-170, the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Sea Avenger and an unspecified Boeing aircraft.