The chief of Naval Air Systems Command, Vice Adm. David Dunaway, said the Navy is striving to find the right mix of requirements for the unmanned aircraft it plans to field on aircraft carriers by the end of this decade–and balancing those requirements with cost.

The X-47B precursor to the UCLASS program. Photo: U.S. Navy

The Navy could release the much anticipated draft request for proposals (RFP) for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) within weeks or possibly days, with four contractors competing for the next phase of the program.

The Navy had been expected to publish the draft RFP last summer, but it has been held up as the service continues to revise and work through the mission requirements for the unmanned aircraft planned to play a prominent role in future carrier air wings.

Dunaway, whose command is responsible for the engineering and procurement of the aircraft based on the requirements provided by the Navy’s senior leadership, said there are a “full range” of designs that could come into play to meet the various requirements, but there needs to be some tradeoff among them to keep UCLASS affordable.

“There are certain things that drive cost,” Dunaway said at a conference Wednesday hosted by Aviation Week.

“If you are going to provision for survivability, the provision for survivability has a large range,” Dunaway said, referring to one of several key requirements for the design of UCLASS. “The question is where to do you want to draw the line on that provision of survivability?”

In addition to survivability, other requirements said to be in the mix are intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) capabilities, endurance, payload, the mid-air refueling of other aircraft, as well as the ability to strike.

“Where do you draw the line?” Dunaway said. “Because drawing it at the wrong place could cost us a lot of money, or drawing it at the wrong place could cost you a lot of capability.”

Boeing [BA], General Atomics, Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] are the companies competing for UCLASS and all four are currently under Navy contracts to conduct research and development for the UCASS program. The Navy is asking for $403 million dollars for UCLASS research and development in its fiscal 2015 budget request unveiled Tuesday.

Northrop Grumman is the lead contractor for the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstrator (UCAS-D) program that is a precursor to UCLASS. The X-47B last year performed arresting gear landings on an aircraft carrier as well launches on the stream driven catapult, a key step in progressing the technology. The Navy plans to carry out additional tests this year.