The Navy plans to set up a team to focus on the integration of its envisioned aircraft carrier-based drone known as UCLASS at its Point Mugu base in southern California, according to a document notifying Congress of the decision.
The initial team of 20 people will begin work there in October and will develop plans to transition the unmanned aircraft into the aviation fleet and determine the parameters for initial operations and later full operational capability, the memo said.
The fleet integration team will also evaluate squadron requirements for manpower, training, maintenance, logistics, carrier integration, information technology, interoperability, infrastructure and security, as well as work through budget issues and a fleet response plan, the Dec. 17 document, obtained by Defense Daily, said.
UCLASS, which stands for Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, is a key aviation program for the Navy the service hopes to have fielded early in the next decade.
The Navy is standing up the integration team even as moving forward on the program appears to be stalled over questions about mission requirements. The Navy’s solicitation to launch the industry competition for building the aircraft was supposed to be out last summer, but that has been delayed until an ongoing budget review process for 2016 is complete.
The program has been hit with questions about its requirements. Many lawmakers are criticizing the Navy for not giving it enough weapons for strike capability or for making it more survivable in hostile environments. Congress has also balked at the idea of removing the refueling mission as well.
A review of the requirements is said to be taking place at the senior levels of the Pentagon. UCLASS is also designed to conduct intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, or ISR, missions.
The Navy earlier this year released a draft Request for Proposals (RFP) to the four industry teams competing on the program, and took the unusual step of keeping it from the public, classifying it as “for official use only.” The four companies are: Boeing [BA], General Atomics, Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC]. All four are already under contract for early design work.
Northrop Grumman has been the prime contractor for the preceding Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstration program also known as the X-47B. The Navy is using the two X-47Bs to analyze how a large unmanned aircraft would perform in carrier flight deck operations, and last year for the first time launched and recovered the planes on an aircraft carrier. The Navy has since continued to experiment with the X-47Bs.