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US navy grapples with different UCLASS philosophies

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council’s (JROC) recently revealed decision to fundamentally alter the goals for the US Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme may be at the centre of an ideological struggle for the future of naval aviation.

“This may be an intellectual or ideological civil war within the navy,” says Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute. “This is [chief of naval operations] Adm [Jon] Greenert versus [vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff] Adm [James] Winnefeld.”

While representatives for both men declined to comment on the matter, multiple sources say that Greenert and USN secretary Ray Mabus are upset with Winnefeld and the JROC’s decision to alter the UCLASS requirements. In light of strong pressure from Congress, the industry and a scathing new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, sources say that there are indications the USN is taking another look at the draft requirements for the UCLASS. These are scheduled to be released next month and could potentially delay the document.

One aspect of particular concern to the Congress, GAO and the industry alike is the USN’s decision to develop, build and field up to 24 UCLASS aircraft – enough to equip four carrier air wings – by fiscal year 2020, before a formal Milestone B decision to enter engineering and manufacturing development. USN officials, according to sources, say that Winnefeld’s insistence on a 2020 early operational capability date for the UCLASS is forcing them to adopt an acquisition strategy that some have described as “absurd”.

Some industry sources say they are not surprised by what appears to be an internal struggle within the USN, given the tough budget environment. “It’s fairly obvious that the navy wants to run its own budget priorities, and the JROC is recommending otherwise with the UCLASS,” a source says. “I would also bet that the [Lockheed Martin F-35] Joint Strike Fighter versus future [Boeing] F/A-18E/F/G buys are being looked at with the navy wanting to delay or stretch out the F-35B/C buys.”

The underlying reason behind the USN’s internal strife over the UCLASS is a deep philosophical division over the future of the navy’s aircraft carrier fleet and the air wings that operate from those ships.

As explained by multiple sources, the view represented by Winnefeld and like-minded naval officers is that the US military needs better unmanned air vehicle-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage around the globe. As such, that capability must be integrated on board carriers sooner rather than later.

A recent example cited by one source was when France asked for assistance during its operations in Mali. It would have been useful to get some UAV assets up over Mali without having to ask for permission from a host nation to use their airfields, one source says. If the carrier needs more capability out of its UAVs, those could be added later. The first priority should be to get UAV operations normalised on board the carriers and get more value out of those vessels, the source says.

The opposing view, held by many within the USN, was often espoused by the navy’s former undersecretary Robert Work, is that the Pentagon has far better uses for its multi-billion dollar carriers, air wings and its accompanying strike groups. The navy does need the benefits offered by UAVs such as persistence, stealth and range, but any new unmanned aircraft that is integrated into the carrier’s air wing should be focused on making the carrier a more effective strike platform, one source says.

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