Barely a year after the world's most sophisticated drone proved it could take off and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the project is at a crossroads, with huge implications for the future not only of drone warfare but US seapower writ large.
The US navy will soon release a request for proposals from a handful of defense companies for the development of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike vehicle, or UCLASS. That highly bureaucratic document will formalize the navy's vision for what it wants the highly advanced drone to do.
But that vision is already coming under fierce criticism, as academics, former defense officials and legislators charge the navy with holding a myopic view of the drone’s possibilities. The service, they say, is on the verge of missing a historic opportunity to secure America’s massive advantage in naval aviation against the threats to its aircraft carriers of the coming decades. And with the carrier fleet a stand-in for American power, small changes in requirements for the UCLASS can have global implications.
The navy rejects that criticism entirely, arguing that the system its critics want UCLASS to be is unaffordable and would place the enterprise in jeopardy.