The issue of when and how the U.S. Armed Forces fully integrate unmanned and increasingly autonomous surveillance and strike platforms into their inventory is one of the most important issues facing the Department of Defense. The Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) program offers a test case to judge how serious the services are about ensuring carrier-based long-range strike missions in a contested environment. We are concerned that the Navy’s path to UCLASS aims too low, missing an opportunity to secure the future relevance of the carrier force, America’s primary forward-deployed, power-projection capability.
There are essentially two competing options for the unmanned system: a semi-stealthy aircraft with sufficient endurance to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and light strike in largely permissive environments; or a more capable aircraft with air-to-air refueling capability designed to operate in contested airspace for surveillance and strike missions.
Open source reporting indicates that the request for proposals is biased toward the first option: an unmanned ISR aircraft capability. This is a questionable decision given the ability of other Navy platforms to perform this mission, including the P-8 Poseidon, the MQ-4C Triton, the MQ-8C Fire Scout, and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. This flies in the face of authoritative guidance, including the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which directed the DoD to “invest as required to ensure its ability to operate in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments.” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus also weighed in, writing at War on the Rocks in January of 2014 that “the end state (for UCLASS) is an autonomous aircraft capable of precision strike in a contested environment … It will be a warfighting machine.”