Carrier drone should be able to do more than spy: U.S. Navy

By Andrea Shalal

(Reuters) – The U.S. Navy’s planned unmanned plane for use on aircraft carriers should eventually be able to take on additional roles besides just surveillance, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said on Wednesday.

The Navy last week said it had delayed this month’s planned kickoff of a competition for the new carrier-based unmanned spy plane, citing affordability concerns and a Pentagon-wide review of intelligence and surveillance programs.

Mabus addressed the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance Strike (UCLASS) program during the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit, but stopped short of calling the delay a setback for the program.

“It’s going through a process at (the Office of the Secretary of Defense) to take a broader look at programs,” he said, adding that decisions about the program’s future would likely be included in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 budget request.

Companies interested in the competition include Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), maker of the X-47B unmanned, unarmed plane that has already been tested on U.S. carriers, Boeing Co (BA.N), Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), and privately held General Atomics, which builds the popular Predator unmanned planes used by the U.S. Air Force and other government agencies.

Congress has been debating what the range and armaments should be for the Navy’s next-generation unmanned plane.

Mabus said the Navy had demonstrated that an unmanned plane could take off from and land on a carrier, and that it could be maneuvered on the deck and integrated into an air wing. The challenge, he said, was ensuring that the platform could be adapted for more than one single mission.

“Like all Navy programs, you want it to be able to grow,” he said. “You want it to have the capacity to not just be an (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platform, but to also be a refueling platform, to be a strike platform in permissive environments, and you want it to be a bridge to unmanned strike in a contested environment.”

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, told the summit the UCLASS aircraft was seen as “the program that’s never going to happen,” given competing budget priorities and debate over the plane’s needed capabilities.

He said potential bidders were jockeying behind the scenes to shape the plane’s requirements in ways that would favor their respective offerings. “Anytime there’s a new start, everybody is angling for the most advantage,” he said.

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