Within the coming weeks the US Navy will release a request for proposal (RFP) for its unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) programme, the service tells Flightglobal.
The announcement follows the release of budget documents earlier this month that reveal the Navy has delayed first flight of UCLASS from the second quarter of fiscal year 2017 to the third quarter of fiscal year 2018.
The documents attribute the delay to "adjustments to the programme's acquisition strategy."
Though the USN declines to provide a specific date for the RFP release, it says it typically releases RFPs within 15 days of posting a synopsis on the federal government's procurement website.
That synopsis went up on 13 March, meaning the RFP should be released by 28 March.
The 13 March posting announced that only four companies will be permitted to bid on the air vehicle segment of UCLASS.
Those companies, which already received Navy contracts to conduct UCLASS preliminary design reviews, include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Northrop Grumman, says the Navy.
“Award to any contractor other than a [preliminary design review] participant would result in significant schedule delays and require substantial additional costs which are not expected to be recouped by the government through full and open competition,” says the Navy.
The announcement follows the release of the US Navy’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, which still must be approved by Congress but would inject $403 million for UCLASS funding for fiscal year 2015.
That’s more than three times the $122 million allotted for the project in the current fiscal year.
The service plans to spend $2.67 billion through fiscal year 2019 on UCLASS development, according to budget documents.
Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned air system demonstrator on the deck of aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on 10 November, 2013.
Reports surfaced last year that the tight budget environment led the Navy to relax UCLASS requirements for stealth, inflight refueling and the ability to operate in contested airspace.
The Navy plans to invest $3.7 billion through 2020 on UCLASS and seeks to eventually field six to 24 of the stealthy UAVs, according to a 2013 Government Accountability Office report.
The report noted that the programme faces schedule risk because it is “heavily reliant on the successful development and delivery of other systems and software.”
It added that the Navy “will be challenged to effectively manage” and integrate the UCLASS air vehicle with carrier systems and control systems.
The report also notes that cost estimates are uncertain and could exceed available funding, and says problems could arise because the source selection process has been “compressed” to eight months from a typical 12 months.