The US Navy has delayed a request for proposals (RFP) for its unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme until next year.
"We are looking at the early part of 2013 now," the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) says. A draft RFP is now likely to be released between January and March, possibly due to difficulties in finalizing the requirements for the new programme. Previously, the RFP was scheduled to be released this month.
The USN has to balance range, speed, stealth and payload with cost for the new aircraft, says Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute in Virginia. "I suspect it's not as easy to define as they had originally thought," he says.
Goure says that the USN should focus less on defining the exact requirements needed for the UCLASS and more on getting a "modest" unmanned aircraft operating on a carrier deck sooner. A small number of those more modest machines should be used to gain a better understanding of the operating concepts for a carrier-based unmanned aircraft system, he says. "You're trying to guess about a future you don't even perceive well and then trying to design a perfect platform for a poor illuminated future," Goure says. "We don't know what a perfect stealth carrier unmanned aircraft is going to look like."
USN budget documents indicate that the service hopes to have the new aircraft in limited operational service by 2020. According to USN officials, that means that a small squadron of perhaps a half-dozen UCLASS aircraft would be ready to train onboard ship with a carrier air wing by that date. However, the unit would not deploy with the carrier during its cruise. "It clearly is an ambitious schedule," says Phil Finnegan, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. "It's already slipped by a couple of years and is very likely to slip some more."
For industry, the UCLASS programme is extremely important, Finnegan says. The USN effort is one of the few large-scale new start developmental programmes for the foreseeable future. As such, for many of the potential contractors, the UCLASS is a "must win," Finnegan says.
Northrop Grumman is expected to pitch a derivative of the X-47B unmanned combat aircraft system demonstrator (UCAS-D) for the UCLASS programme. Lockheed Martin is hoping to offer an aircraft called the Sea Ghost. General Atomics is expected to offer a derivative of its Predator-C Avenger. Boeing is likely to bid a new design that draws upon lessons learned from its X-45C Phantom Ray.