Continued schedule delays to the Navy’s carrier-based drone program could have implications on the service’s vision for the future carrier air wing, including its next generation fighter, a key admiral  said Wednesday.

Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director of air warfare, said the service is buying the aircraft it needs for 2025, save one exception—the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, which would be the first unmanned aerial system (UAS) to be part of the carrier air wing.

Progress on the UCLASS program has been paused as the Defense Department conducts an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance portfolio review that includes unmanned assets. Fielding of the platform, which was scheduled for 2020, has been pushed to 2022 at earliest as a result.

The Navy's X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator (UCAS) designed for carrier operations and the precursor to UCLASS. Photo: U.S. Navy
The Navy’s X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator (UCAS) designed for carrier operations and the precursor to UCLASS. Photo: U.S. Navy

“We have lost this time to put that technology to work, that’s where my frustration is. I think it’s ready to go. The Navy has been ready,” Manazir told reporters on June 3 after a Navy League event . “If something is ready to go and it makes sense to do it and it advances our warfighting capability, why wouldn’t you?”

By 2025, Manazir envisions a highly interoperable carrier air wing where assets such as F-35 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets, E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft, E-2D Hawkeye airborne early warning planes and UAS can pass information back and forth between themselves and the carrier. The constant schedule delays to UCLASS put that at risk, he said.

“The ramifications are literally that we’re going to fall behind in the benefits of having an unmanned attribute inside the air wing,” he said. “We are anxious to release that RFP (request for proposals) with its stable set of requirements, and those requirements have been stable now for over a year, a year and a half.” That RFP will not be released until the ISR review has finished.

The unmanned capability inherent in UCLASS could also inform the requirements of the Navy’s next fighter jet, the F/A-XX, Manazir said. The service has started pre-analysis of alternatives work on the program, which would field a replacement for the Super Hornet and Growler.

Maturing unmanned technology such as UCLASS could be vital for F/A-XX, as Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has indicated that the F-35 will be the last manned fighter the service will buy.

The current UCLASS requirements for an ISR asset with a light strike capability have been widely unpopular with House and Senate lawmakers, who favor the acquisition of a highly-weaponized strike platform capable of operating in contested environments.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said during a speech at the event that based on the classified briefings he’s sat through on the threat environment, the Navy doesn’t have the time to use UCLASS as a bridge to a more technologically sophisticated drone.