For years, the Navy and Congress have been at odds over the service’s future carrier-based drone, called the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS). But lawmakers want to ensure the Pentagon structures UCLASS requirements in a way they approve of, and a proposal unveiled last week in the Senate Armed Service Committee’s markup of the 2016 defense authorization bill was specifically targeted to do just that, its chairman said.

The committee authorized $375 million for a competitive prototyping effort that would fund the development of at least two demonstrator aircraft capable of long range strike in a contested environment, it said last Thursday.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

When asked today whether that was meant to move the Navy away from its current UCLASS requirements—which call for an unmanned aerial system primarily used to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions— SASC Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered a resounding “yes.”

“If you believe as I do, that the F-35 was the last manned fighter aircraft, then the drones have to have commensurate capability,” he told Defense Daily on May 20.

The Navy has stalled the UCLASS program while it reevaluates the system’s requirements, but plans to release a request for proposals in fiscal year 2016. The first system could be fielded as early as 2022.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and McCain iterated a similar vision for the future of UAS in the carrier air wing. They both want unmanned aircraft to take over the roles currently filled by manned fighter jets, a desire Mabus expressed again today during an event held by Defense One.  

But, as always, the devil is in the details.

UCLASS will be a bridge to the more ambitious, unmanned strike fighter of the future, Mabus said. The F-35 “almost certainly will be our last manned aircraft, and we see UCLASS as getting to that.”

But “for UCLASS, our notion is that we ought to have endurance, we have to have range, and we have to have payload,” he said, restating the Navy’s current approach is to develop an ISR platform with the ability to strike targets in minimally contested environments.

McCain would have the service acquire a more sophisticated UCLASS with capabilities closer to an unmanned fighter jet, and invest in testing and demonstration efforts that could speed up the development of a platform that would be more lethal and survivable than the system bolstered by the Navy.

The competitive prototyping effort would bridge UCLASS and the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program, in which a UAS launched and conducted an arrested landing on an aircraft carrier for the first time. Much of the work on the prototypes could take place by fiscal year 2017, committee aides have said.

Flying more advanced demonstrator aircraft also would help the UCLASS program avoid cost overruns later on, McCain said today.