Since the historic series of tests of its X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) on the USS George H.W. Bush last summer, the Navy has reached an inflection point on the future of unmanned carrier aviation. Specifically, the request for proposals (RFP) for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft is delayed and the draft has only recently been released in a restricted form. The delay is due to a battle over the UCLASS requirements and whether the platform should resemble a high-end, penetrating aircraft, or a more limited ISR platform suited for low threat environments. The Navy is widely reported to have chosen the latter course; issuing a request for proposals for a “low-end” UCLASS.
This decision has drawn considerable ire from outside groups. Notably, Shawn Brimley recently penned an op-ed in which he chastised the Navy for its “poor judgment” in favoring a more affordable, non-penetrating aircraft. Rep. Randy Forbes, the Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee has taken notice. He inserted language into his subcommittee’s markup of the 2015 NDAA that would require the secretary of defense to certify the UCLASS requirement before the program is allowed to move forward. He believes that the Navy is not correctly emphasizing the strike mission in its current request for proposals; a nod to those who favor a more “capable” penetrating aircraft. In addition, the full House Armed Services Committee markup cuts UCLASS funding in half as part of a program delay pushed by Rep. Forbes.