The Navy’s program of record for a carrier-based drone has changed hands, but the future of the program is still as secretive as ever.

The service’s new N99 unmanned warfare systems directorate has taken responsibility for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program and all other pre-Milestone B efforts to develop unmanned systems, N99 Director Rear Adm. Robert Girrier told reporters on Friday. The Navy’s program executive office for unmanned aviation and strike weapons was in charge of the program previously.

The X-47B unmanned plane is refueled in flight during an April 22 demonstration over the Chesapeake Bay.(Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)
The X-47B unmanned plane is refueled in flight during an April 22 demonstration over the Chesapeake Bay.(Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)

During the conference call, Girrier refused to comment on the future of UCLASS, which has been stalled while the Defense Department conducts a review on its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance portfolio.

The way forward on the program is “currently under deliberation,” he said, adding that would be “premature” to talk about it.

The Navy remains committed to UCLASS, he said. Putting unmanned systems on an aircraft carrier is an evolutionary process, and the service sees the program as a critical step forward.

“The biggest thing that I can tell you about UCLASS and its value is it’s the evolutionary step that integrates unmanned aviation into the carrier airwing. That’s absolutely an enduring interest [and] commitment,” he said. “Obviously endurance is a key piece of that. Integration is a key piece of that.”

Any characteristics beyond that, however, he refused to speculate on.

“More will come out in the coming months,” he said.

The presumptive UCLASS competitors—Lockheed Martin [LMT], Boeing [BA], Northrop Grumman [NOC] and General Atomics—have already generated preliminary designs of the unmanned aerial vehicle. However, congressional defense hawks have disputed the Navy’s vision for UCLASS as a high-endurance, ISR asset, and are trying to push the service toward requirements changes that would yield a more survivable, lethal strike asset.

In its fiscal year 2016 budget request, Navy requested $134.7 million for the program. Some lawmakers want to more than triple that amount. In the National Defense Authorization Act conference report, the House and Senate armed services committees added an additional $350 million to the UCLASS program and directed the Navy to develop two operational prototypes with a focus on range, payload, and survivability. The House and Senate appropriations bills contain no such funding.

The service has already demonstrated one prototype developed to test the feasibility of flying a UAV off a carrier deck—the X-47B built by Northrop Grumman.

Frank Kelley, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems, said he had the opportunity to see the X-47B in action in August 2014, when the UAV operated alongside Boeing F/A-18 Hornets off the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). It was the first time the demonstrator had flown cooperatively with a manned aircraft.

“We were convinced we were looking at the future of naval aviation,” he said during the Friday conference call.