UCLASS Superdrone a bridge to fully autonomous fighters

The Navy’s planned carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) will help the service in a transition from manned strike aircraft to a future autonomous strike platform, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said on Wednesday.

While the final character of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) is still being developed, Mabus said whatever the outcome it would likely not possess the autonomous deep strike capability into contested areas the service ultimately will require.

“What we currently think it won’t be able to do is in the current [request for proposal] we’re looking at, is to do autonomous contested strike,” Mabus told reporters following an address at the U.S Naval Academy (USNA).

“What we’re looking at UCLASS is to be the bridge between manned systems and completely autonomous unmanned strike — which will be sometime in the 2020s — to develop that program using UCLASS to get us there.”

The Navy has plans to introduce UCLASS to the fleet by 2022 to 2023

While Mabus said UCLASS might not be the penetrating strike aircraft some advocates are hoping for, the Navy will ultimately need an autonomous strike platform.

“We have to moved to unmanned. That’s the future,” he said in response to a question from an USNA midshipman.

The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement program — F/A-XX…looks like it should be unmanned,” he said.

The United States Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program is an aircraft carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle to provide an unmanned intelligence and strike asset to the fleet. The Navy plans to arm the proposed UCLASS with weapons currently in the carrier air wing’s inventory. Weapons requirements will be outlined in final proposals and will be influenced by specific proposals. With the priority of the aircraft on ISR, the airframe will accommodate a fifth-generation AESA radar. It will have multiple intelligence (multi-int) sensors to include electro-optical/infrared sensors and full-motion video cameras. The sensor suite allows for detection and tracking of targets on land or at sea. Integrating weaponry is still being planned, but will include Joint Direct Attack Munitions.

Though its primary roles will be ISR and strike, there is the potential to use it as a “flying missile magazine” to supplement the F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-35C as a type of “robotic wingman.” Its weapons bay could be filled with AIM-120 AMRAAMs and be remotely operated by an E-2D Hawkeye or F-35C flight leader

An artist’s concept of a proposed Lockheed Martin UCLASS design. Lockheed Martin Image

It is now planned to weigh 70,000 to 80,000 lb (32,000 to 36,000 kg), about the size of the F-14 Tomcat, and much larger than the 44,000 lb (20,000 kg) X-47B. Some proposed designs are 68 ft (21 m) long, 8 ft longer than the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Size and weight projections may require a twin-engine design or a version of the Pratt & Whitney F135 which delivers 28,000 lb (13,000 kg) of thrust. Endurance may be up to 14 hours. Other roles are now being considered for the aircraft. The UCLASS may be used as an aerial refueling platform to extend the range of fighters like the F-35C. It could transfer 20,000 lb (9,100 kg) of fuel and still stay airborne for up to 7.5 hours. Stealth features are still being debated, but it is not expected to be as stealthy as the F-35C. By 2030, the Navy will have operational experience with the UCLASS and have a better understanding with what an unmanned aircraft can bring to a carrier air wing.

Cost constraints are driving Navy requirements for the UCLASS. One requirement that has remained constant is for the aircraft to conduct ISR orbits at tactically significant ranges for $150 million, meaning two air vehicles costing $75 million each can cover one orbit if they have an endurance of 14 hours. Survivability features are expensive, but cost is ultimately driven by the size of the airframe.

An artist’s conception of Boeing’s UCLASS offering taken as part of the company’s display at the U.S. Navy League 2015 Sea Air Space Exposition. US Naval Institute Photo

SOURCES – Wikipedia, USNI