Days after the Navy announced its new strategy for putting an unmanned aerial system (UAS) on the deck of an aircraft carrier, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson voiced his support and enthusiasm for making that happen as quickly as possible.

“I am eager to get started in unmanned technologies,” he said Friday.  “I want to get something on the deck of an aircraft carrier—unmanned—as quickly as we can with a legitimate role to play because there is so much we have got to learn there, so many unexplored questions.”

The Navy's unmanned X-47B demonstrator aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Photo: U.S. Navy
The Navy’s unmanned X-47B demonstrator aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Photo: U.S. Navy

The new CNO doesn’t exactly love the new name for the program, called the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System, or CBARS, he said during an American Enterprise Institute event. But its new mission has the potential to be incredibly beneficial to the Navy.

Instead of focusing on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) or penetrating strike, as its now-defunct predecessor the Unmanned Carrier Launched Air Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system could have done, CBARS’ primary role will be the aerial refueling of other aircraft on the carrier wing, giving those assets even more range and keeping the pilots who usually perform aerial refueling for other more specialized missions.

“It will free up tactical aircraft by virtue of taking on that mission, but even more important, we’ll learn how to integrate unmanned aircraft into our airwing,” Richardson said. “The tanking mission will liberate five to six aircraft. The strike fighter aircraft that are doing tanking missions right now, they’ll be off doing strike fighter type missions, so there’s a real benefit there.”

He added that CBARS could also include some sort of ISR capability, and other Navy officials have alluded to a potential light strike requirement as well.  And the service will do its best not to preclude CBARS’ upgrade potential, so that the drone can grow as the Navy learns more about what it can do with unmanned aviation on the carrier deck, Richardson said.

The Navy has traveled a long road to arrive at the CBARS concept. The service, Congress and naval experts debated for years whether UCLASS should take the form of a long-range, stealthy strike asset or a more modest ISR drone with room to grow. The program ground to a halt in 2014 when the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) started an ISR portfolio review. The Navy revealed on Tuesday during the release of its 2017 budget request that it would procure an unmanned tanker.

The service has not yet released its acquisition plan for the program, but the goal is to field a CBARS platform in the mid-2020s, Rear Adm. William Lescher, Navy deputy assistant secretary for budget, said Tuesday.

Whether Congress will support the death of UCLASS and the rise of CBARS is yet to be seen. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) seapower and projection forces subcommittee, fell short of endorsing the new plan during a Thursday HASC subcommittee hearing on the carrier airwing.

“I look forward to learning more about the CBARS aircraft and how the Navy intends to employ it,” he said in his opening statement. “But with regard to UCLASS, I remain convinced that a carrier-based, deep penetrating, long range strike capability is an essential element of any future carrier air wing.”

During the AEI event, Richardson said his support for unmanned carrier aviation comes back to the buzzword that has permeated many of his speeches since he became the top naval officer in September: fast learning. He is working with the Pentagon and Congress in the hopes of creating a “speed lane” for certain acquisition programs that would accelerate fielding of products through experimentation and prototyping.

The CNO also spoke about his vision for the next generation surface combatant. That ship or family of ships will have to be more modular and adaptable so that systems like sensors, weapons and other payloads can be quickly refreshed as technology hurtles forward.

“There will be some aspects of that ship that will last about 30 years, but there will be an increasing percentage of that ship that will be riding that Moore’s law curve,” he said, referencing the idea that electronics technology rapidly improves every two years.

Richardson envisions the next generation surface combatant as “digitally-native.” 

“My sense of the way we are incorporating informational warfare now, is we’re taking the platforms that we have and we’re making them very capable by adding systems on,” he said. In the next generation of surface combatants, “information technologies and information warfare will be in the DNA of the ship in the very design.”