Expert: Navy might need two unmanned carrier jets

By Meghann Myers, Staff writer

The Navy is still deciding what it needs from its first operational unmanned carrier jet — surveillance or strike weapons, or a mix of each.

The name of the program suggests a hybrid strike-surveillance aircraft, but one expert says they’d be better served with two carrier-launched airframes.

The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Aerial Strike and Surveillance program proposes one jet to do both jobs, but ongoing argument between the Navy and Congress has delayed its request for proposals: Some lawmakers want Naval Air Systems Command to focus on strike capabilities, but the Navy wants to maintain an emphasis on a long-range surveillance platform.

“The problem is, if you try to stuff both missions into one airframe, you end up sacrificing one,” former destroyer skipper retired Cmdr. Bryan McGrath told Navy Times. “We need both strike and surveillance, and we probably need them in two separate aircraft.”

While that idea hasn’t been officially presented, said a Navy spokeswoman, all options are on the table to meet the capabilities the Navy wants in its unmanned jet while anticipating the next generations of aircraft.

“As we move forward, it’s important that unmanned systems not only be able to integrate with the ship, but also with future platforms,” Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman told Navy Times.

You wouldn’t want a radar system that only works with one type of aircraft, so the Navy is looking into hardware and software for UCLASS that would set the standard for unmanned integration going forward.

NAVAIR has written three requests for proposal, but they haven’t been released, retired Vice Adm. Dave Dunaway, the former NAVAIR boss, said in early September.

“The number one thing passed down to me when I came into the job [in 2012]: This RFP for UCLASS, we’ve got to get it out,” he said, weeks before ending his tour and retiring with no approved request for proposals. “There’s a political battle going on with what kind of capability we need coming off the carrier.”

McGrath, who co-authored an Oct. 5 report defending the strategic value of the carrier strike group, pointed out that getting unmanned capabilities up and running could quiet some critics who think that carriers are too vulnerable to potential threats from China, for example.

“A critical gap in the air wing is organic, persistent [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]  and targeting, something the ongoing UCLASS acquisition is at least partially attempting to address,” according to the report.

But with a potential long-range strike and surveillance aircraft about a decade off, the Navy is looking at platforms it already has — like the MQ-4C Triton, an unmanned P-8 Poseidon complement, and the MQ-8B Fire Scout, a helicopter mostly used on littoral combat ships — and how they might work with a strike group, Schwegman said.

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