The US Navy expects to release a draft request for proposal (RFP) for the technology development phase of its unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft programme in August, a top service official says. A final version is expected for the second quarter of 2014.

The navy has a "two RFP strategy" for the UCLASS, says Mat Winter, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) programme executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons.

The first RFP, which is already out, is designed to mature the four current designs from contactors Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop, up to a preliminary design review (PDR) over the next nine months. Moreover, the PDR is an opportunity for the navy to get a better understanding of just how mature each design is, Winter says. The service will provide each of the contractors its assessment of their technical readiness for the next phase of the programme.

Next will come an RFP for a much more rigorous technology demonstration phase. "We will be putting out an RFP for the technology development phase in the second quarter of FY [fiscal year] [20]14," Winter says. "We're putting out the draft in August, for the air vehicle segment of UCLASS."

NAVAIR hopes to hold an industry day for the second RFP in September. The USN will then downselect from the current field of four contractors to one company by the end of 2014, Winter says. Development of the UCLASS will start in earnest in 2015 and it is expected to take between three and six years before an operational aircraft is fielded on a carrier.

The developmental programme will emphasise the command and control element to fly the aircraft on an operational sortie. The current Northrop X-47B control segment is, for the most part, a launch and recovery system because that aircraft was solely intended as a demonstrator.

The UCLASS will be biased toward intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, with some light strike capability. While the aircraft will be stealthy, the low observability requirement will not be such that it would preclude anything other than a flying-wing design, Winter says.

While the navy must be able to purchase the UCLASS in numbers, affordability is among the highest priorities, says navy secretary Ray Mabus. However, there is no firm cost limit for the programme.

Despite Mabus's statement that the service will need to buy the UCLASS in numbers, the navy will not measure the programme simply by the number of airframes available. Winter says that the service will instead gauge the programme by the number of ISR orbits it will provide. The navy's "threshold" is two orbits operating 24h a day, seven days per week at a "tactically significant" distance from the carrier, Winter says. An individual orbit could consist of anywhere from three to six aircraft, with the final number yet to be determined.

Winter says the goal is to deliver those two orbits per carrier for less than $150 million. Initially, the goal is to equip four carriers with UCLASS. A fifth vessel will be added later, as the service begins to better understand the capability. Exactly how the UCLASS capability will evolve in the future is still an open question.

Source: Flight International