Five Reasons the Navy Needs UCLASS

It May Not Be All We Want, But It's What We Need
Five Reasons the Navy Needs UCLASS
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This week, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute assailed the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) project as “unmanageable.” The problem, he argues, is that while the new, less ambitious technical requirements for UCLASS will produce a less expensive aircraft, they will produce a less capable one as well. Such a plane, he believes, will be no bargain, for in an era of constrained budgets, “spending billions of dollars on an ill-defined program just to have a carrier-based drone is a dubious proposition.”

After reading that, I wondered if we were thinking of the same UCLASS program. Didn’t I just see a prototype running cats-and-traps alongside an F-18E on the Theodore Roosevelt? For I find the Navy’s carrier drone project—as it is conceived now—to be a very practical and sensible idea, for five separate reasons:

1. Operational Necessity

Thompson notes that flight decks and hangar bays are crowded, so every additional aircraft type must justify its existence. But despite his assertion, the Navy does not have “abundant” reconnaissance assets on its carriers: it mostly has comparatively short-ranged fighter-bombers and helicopters. The UCLASS is being designed to run a 24-hour armed patrol 600 nautical miles from its base. That’s not “ill-defined” or “nice to have.” That’s something no other sea-based strike aircraft can manage without aerial refueling, and tankers are themselves hard to come by within range of enemy air and surface units. As the Chinese Navy puts longer-ranged missiles on its ships, the U.S. Navy will need longer-range reconnaissance planes to fix their locations for aerial and surface attack.

2. Technological Feasibility

If that seems like an important mission, then be happy with it. For this gets to the second point, which is technological: the art of the possible just doesn’t allow better right now. A penetrating drone would be an ambitious proposition, much less a dogfighting one. But as Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin of the Royal Canadian Air Force told the Toronto Star last year, going slowly with new drones is hardly tragic, as waiting for technologies to mature can produce a more capable aircraft in the long run.

The last thing any American military service needs is another pursuit of unobtainium. On the other hand, in the short run, fielding modest capabilities for fleet experimentation can reveal technical possibilities that computer models can’t. In the long run, the Navy and its contractors will be able to build advanced aircraft more cost-effectively if they resist the temptation for another great leap forward.

3. Avoiding a Fiasco

A third issue is administrative necessity. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War – desperate for its own stealth bomber – the Navy contracted McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics to design the Avenger II. But in a familiar pattern, the “Flying Dorito” proved an unmanageable technological leap forward—so much so that even flying a prototype was impossible. Instead, needing a win, the service latched onto McDonnell Douglas’s proposal for a mere Super Hornet, which became the only American combat jet in recent history to cost less than planned. It’s also still a comparatively new aircraft that’s equipping flight decks while the Air Force is trying to fix the cracks in its aging F-16s, and continues to wait for F-35s.

A modest UCLASS program wouldn’t be “doomed to failure” as Thompson asserts. But another overreach could produce another fiasco that the service cannot afford – culturally or financially.

Indeed, the economic allure of the UCLASS is salient. The target cost is just $30 million per aircraft. Compare that to the $130 million that the Navy says it’s paying for F-35Cs (or much more, depending on the accounting), and the $550 million that the Air Force is targeting for its Long-Range Strike Bomber, and the drone really does look to be a bargain. At one-seventeenth the cost of the LRS-B, who cares whether it could roam around central China looking for targets? At that price, keeping the fleet on watch for sneak attacks 24-7 might be enough.

4. Experimentation and Innovation

Building a carrier drone force now also allows the opportunity for organizational learning. Someone needs to force that maturation of technologies and force structures. As the Air Force pulls back from its interest in drones, the mantle can be assumed by the U.S. Navy. 

As Peter W. Singer wrote in Armed Forces Journal a year ago, this new interwar period is a good time for experimentation, and the process of innovation does “not require waiting for the full purchase of an entire new suite of technology to start thinking on its concept of operations.” He was writing specifically of the Navy's experience in the 1930s—when budgets were really tight. It was then that the service mastered the business of carrier aviation, including torpedo bombing.

It’s important to remember that the Douglas Devastators that guided the service through that process were themselves devastated by flak and Zeroes at the Battle of Midway. They were obsolete aircraft when the war started. But what Navy squadrons learned organizationally and tactically from using them was critical to their subsequent success once reequipped with the much more capable, follow-on Grumman Avengers.

5. Industrial Competition

Finally, UCLASS has industrial value. Not billions, but hundreds of millions, are keeping four design teams motivated and innovating: Northrop Grumman with a development of its X-47B 'Iron Raven' (excellent), Lockheed Martin with its Sea Ghost, Boeing with its Phantom Ray, and fittingly, General Atomics with its Sea Avenger. That structure is a long way from the monopolization of the business that Lockheed Martin was presumed to have inherited by winning the Joint Strike Fighter contract some thirteen years ago.

What’s the alternative to all this? The Defense Secretary won’t let the Navy just buy those Super Hornets until the end of time. The Navy could just continue to bet the farm on the F-35C, whatever the still-uncertain cost. But if you think that’s a good idea, get back to me about the progress of that software development effort. In the interim, I’ll be watching for the Navy’s next actual feat on the flight deck.

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