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.”
More from CNAS
CommentaryImplementing Women, Peace, and Security Guidance to Systematically Combat Gender-Based Violence in the Military
By institutionalizing a culture that respects the perspectives of everyone who serves, the military advances preventative measures to address sexual harassment and assault....
By Dr. Kyleanne Hunter & Emma Moore
PodcastU.S And 25 Other Nations To Participate In Huge Joint Training Exercise
Last year the pandemic derailed large-scale war gaming – this year it's back with a vengeance. The U.S. military is taking part in a massive joint training exercise across Eur...
By Becca Wasser & Jay Price
CommentarySharper: The Next 100 Days
As the administration marks its 100th day in office, what lies ahead?...
By Anna Pederson & Chris Estep
CommentaryWe Got Afghanistan Wrong, but There’s Still Time to Learn Something
Instead of building a force that fit Afghanistan, we built an Army of mini-me’s...
By Dr. Jason Dempsey