130517-N-YZ751-017 ATLANTIC OCEAN (May 17, 2013) An X-47B unmanned combat air system (UCAS) demonstrator conducts a touch and go landing on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). This is the first time any unmanned aircraft has completed a touch and go landing at sea. George H.W. Bush is conducting training operations in the Atlantic Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tony D. Curtis/Released)

I have found some of the responses to the latest announcement about UCLASS to be sadly telling about how little some have learned from the Age of Transformationalism that begat LCS, DDG-1000, and F-35.

To me, the decision on UCLASS is a good news story about a focused and learning institution, but others seem slightly stuck between rage and disappointment when they realize that by the end of FY17 we won’t be launching sharks with lasers on their foreheads off the #3 catapult.

First the announcement via Sam on Monday;

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort is being retooled as primarily a carrier-based unmanned aerial refueling platform — one of several Pentagon directed naval aviation mandates in the service’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget submission.

The shift from UCLASS to the new Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) will be made alongside an additional buy of Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets over the next several years and accelerated purchases and development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

Let’s pause here a bit and review two things.

First, we have known for a long time that we have intentionally taken away one of the most critical requirements of carrier based aviation, deep strike. The light attack community won their internacine Beltway war and killed off the VA and VF community with the help of accountants and industry lobbying. Yippee for them, I guess.

In an ever more short sighted effort to dig around the cushions to find more change, we mindlessly let an organic tanking ability fade away. As people decided that long range strike and anti-submarine warfare wasn’t going to be an issue in their PCS cycle, why not go ahead and take that money now and let others deal that those papered over problems later. Action complete.

Their personal victory did work for their PCS cycle, but as requirements regressed to the mean, we found our aviation fleet tactically limited, operationally confined, and the nation’s power projection ability at strategic risk.

Second, let’s be clear about where we stand with unmanned systems. Ignore the PPT vignettes and cartoon sci-fi theory, but rest on the cold facts that the hardware is relatively untested in a sustained operational environment. The software is between crawl and walk in the crawl-walk-run spectrum. The JAG community and diplo-political considerations are not even close to being ready to ponder any type of strike capability beyond some kind of “reusable TLAM.” For those who think of autonomous strike and AAW with Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) or drones or whatever we are calling them this week, they need to fully hoist onboard the fact that the hardware and software are the easy problems. The JAG and diplo-political problems? Good luck with that.

Where does that put us now? Well, we don’t have any attack aircraft on the drawing board, nor do we have any heavy fighters on the way. FA-XX is looking to be more “F” than “A” – but we’ll see – but that is WAAAYYY off from making shadows on the ramp.

Right now and in the next decade, what do we need? We need to do what we can to regain what we lost, a airwing with legs.

USNI News understands the Navy commissioned a study last year with the Center for Naval Analysis that found that modifying the existing UCLASS program was more capable and cost effective than a modified V-22, Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, bringing back the retired S-3 Viking or using the JSF.

Tanking with UAS from a hardware and software standpoint is doable and reachable. Extra bonus, the carrier airwing and aircraft carriers will build experience of maintaining and operating with UAS at sea. We will learn things we have not even thought of yet. We will refine the equipment, modify requirements, and smart men and women will come up with ideas that will make the next steps a greater success.

It is natural that UAS move on to ISR and even strike – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We can do something earlier that we need yesterday, tanking. In doing so, we greatly increase the odds of moving in to ISR and strike with success.

Even tanking will be a challenge, but if we can’t make that work, we can’t make ISR or strike work anytime soon either.

We can make that work, or we can’t. Either way, tanking first is the best approach to UAS today given what we know of the hardware and software that exists today. Not aspirational, not on the PPT, not on the vignette. No. What the folks at Pax River can work with inside a POM or two.

NAVIAR (sic) spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove would not confirm any details on the CBARS program ahead of the release of the FY 2017 budget next week when reached by USNI News on Monday.

One defense official told USNI News the Navy’s priority would be to develop and perfect the control and the connectivity systems with the idea being those basic systems could be used to on different carrier based airframes.

“The Navy has already said it wants to develop the airframe iteratively and that the most expensive part of the [development] is creating a system for an aircraft to move on, off and around the carrier,” one defense official told USNI News on Monday.

That, my friends, is beautiful thinking. UAS skeptics and UAS fanboy enthusiasts should all nod their heads in support.

Innovation, imagination, and progress is part of our competitive advantage when we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. This is good.

One final note; as he is on many things, the SECNAV is greatly mistaken on manned vs. unmanned carrier air;

Last year, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said the F-35C would be “almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly,” he said in address at the Navy League’s 2015 Sea-Air-Space Exposition.

Step away from the PPT. UAS have a future, but they are simply a tool. They are a tool that can do many things – but there will always be a requirement for a “man in the loop” in the messy business of war. A man there, on station, with the training and mind to make decisions on the spot – and to be held accountable for his actions.

Also, talk to your JAG at the end of the vignette. The news of the death of the manned aircraft has been greatly exagerated.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Aviation, Navy
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  • Ming the Merciless

    A man there, on station, with the training and mind to make decisions on the spot – and to be held accountable for his actions.

    Is some man “accountable” when we launch a TLAM, launch a Hellfire from a drone, or take a BVR shot, even though that man is not right there “on the spot” when the munition strikes? Yes, yes, yes. Therefore it is not clear to me why “the JAG” makes UCLASS “really hard” (or “too hard”) as a deep strike platform. With an armed UCLASS, as with other attack drones, a man will be in the loop, and accountable, even though he is not on station, and he does not have to be on station to make decisions or be accountable.

    • Reading is fundamental. Please review and note; “The JAG community and diplo-political considerations are not even close to being ready to ponder any type of strike capability beyond some kind of “reusable TLAM.” ” UAS advocates are talking AI, not what we already do with “Primary, Backup, Ready Spare” weaponeering.

      • CharleyA

        We’re not ready for AI. Apple – who has some of the best code jockeys in the world – cannot get Siri to reliably interpret voice commands in vehicles, and produce relevant search results. The Dream is still far away.

      • Ahhhh, so don’t execute command by voice? That is not an issue.

      • CharleyA

        The point is that this elementary AI system does not work reliably a good percentage of the time, despite the efforts of a company that specializes in software development. Do we have a robust and reliable AI technology required to unleash the krakens to attack autonomously? I think not.

      • CAPT Mongo

        ““reusable TLAM.””

        That would be a F/A-18 right?

      • BSmitty

        Except for the whole “CSAR if it’s shot down” or “We regret to inform you..” thing.

      • CAPT Mongo


      • Deploys sub-munitions, then flies back to get some more.

      • CAPT Mongo


      • tpharwell

        In seven years, maybe not.

      • There just can’t be too many craters in an enemy runway.

      • CAPT Mongo

        Particularly if the craters have submunitions with delayed/tamper sensitive elements in them. TLAM-D yes!

      • Arctic_Fox

        Indeed… One gift I’m in favor of giving to the enemy is practice, practice and more practice in runway repair details.

      • Ming the Merciless

        “Autonomous” (or AI) does not mean there is not a man in the loop. The robot finds the target, phones home, and asks “mother may I?” — just like the manned pilot does.

      • …but if I cut your phone line (which I will do) – what then?

      • BSmitty

        How does TLAM handle this?

      • BSmitty

        What’s wrong with just a “reusable TLAM”? Why does a deep-strike UAV have to be half Terminator?

      • Ming the Merciless

        Reusable TLAM is a way station on the road to where you want to be (and it’s much better than non-reusable-TLAM, which is what we have). In an ideal world, the reusable TLAM capability would indeed be part of the UCLASS effort.

      • Redeye80

        Funny, when we go to war, do we wait for the JAGs to come aboard. I am sure ISIS have their JAGs at the ready. I am sure Putin listens to his intently.

        We fight the way we train. Ponder that.

      • Actually, we bring the JAG with us on Staff. ISIS absolutely have their JAGs, they are their clerics. Putin has some of the best legal advice out there. That is why he is able to thread the needle all through the West’s OODA loop. … and your point is.

      • Redeye80

        I guess I don’t have one other than it’s hard to find a technology to fight a war which is defined by (use any adjective) limitations when you enemy is intent on total warfare. You know the old “the Flintstones are beating the Jetsons”. I don’t recall our (use any adjective) limitations when we won WWII.

      • Ike_Kiefer

        I get your point on Putin, but not ISIS. They fail to provide either legitimacy or constraint. ISIS cleric rulings on the proper practice of sexual slavery and the lawful destruction of world heritage sites, and other such vile absurdity offer no cloak of legitimacy recognized by any lawful government. Neither are they adhered to with any consistency by the violent, polyglot mob of mercenary and ideological radicals from 150 nations that comprise this self-described caliphate. JAG DNE cleric. Army DNE terrorist mob. Jihad John DNE general. ISIS DNE nation-state. There is no equivalence, let alone moral equivalence.

      • Arctic_Fox

        Ditto, Sal… I’ve encountered several Russ “political-technical” advisers. Very sharp, well-trained. Schooled in a “realism” form of political analysis. There’s an entire academic pipeline and career path for this within Russ armed forces and dip service.

    • Billy

      JAG’s need to be put through the Curtis LeMay School of Warfare…

      • Ming the Merciless

        Like the residents of Tokyo in March 1945.

      • HMSLion

        Nah. Weaponize them. The J-Bomb…as destructive as nukes, but without fallout.

  • HMSLion

    I’m often critical of NAVAIR, but I honestly think they have handled the UCLASS/whatever-it’s-called-this-week well. Tanking is NOT sexy…just very, very useful. It’s a straightforward job well within the limits of existing software (do NOT underestimate the complexity of UAV software). And if the tanker is the last aircraft to trap, better that it be unmanned.

    And I’m an advocate of dragging the S-3s out of the desert…but as ASW assets, not tankers.

    • Ming the Merciless

      And, since fighter pilots hate doing the non-sexy tanker mission, why not farm it out to an uncompaining robot?

      • CAPT Mongo

        And you save on leather jackets, and scarves, and all that.

      • HMSLion

        Until the guidance computer demands one.
        “I want a silk scarf, Dave.”

      • CAPT Mongo

        HA!! I bet they would, too.

      • Greg Lof

        I thought I read that the AF RPV pilots had started to wear the leather jackets and silk scarvies.

      • CAPT Mongo

        Yes, but you can always distinguish them by the Cheetos stains on their flight suits.

      • VelocityVector

        Not Cheetos. Anusol reacts with nomex in human posterior presence at 98.6F and constant pressure. It’s the finger stains that are gross.

      • CAPT Mongo

        OK. How do you know that?

      • VelocityVector

        Do you *really* want to know how I know? Are you willing to risk a photo upload?

        Wise of you to decline. /humor_tag

      • CAPT Mongo


      • Greg Lof

        OK I give up, why Cheetos and not Doritos?

      • CAPT Mongo

        Doritos crumbs clog up the keyboard–Cheetos just lubricate it 😉

  • surfcaster

    This is good. A vitally needed tanking system that in time should extend the existing weak range of strike from the deck, and reduce hours of that constantly overworked existing compromise flying off decks today.

    With more down the road.

  • CynicSquid

    but i’m not ready to give up on sharks with laser beams either. we can move them off to the right a bit 2024 maybe?

    • James

      Squid sharks are the past. The Future is sea otters my friends sea otters.

      • tpharwell

        I like it. STOL Sea Otters

      • CAPT Mongo

        Hey. Like this one?

  • CharleyA

    So is the CMV-22 tanker version dead? Some have suggested converting S-3s to autonomous tankers since the new UAS has dropped the stealth requirement.

    • James B.

      Building a pallet-loaded bladder and a drogue to string out the back of an otherwise unmodified V-22 is probably still an option, and one the Marines might be interested in if the Navy isn’t, but it wouldn’t be as efficient as a flying-wing drone tanker.

  • Jon

    We’ve got S-3s parked in the desert for tankers. Already paid for. No tech issues to work out. No gee whiz factor. No deep thinking required. Tankers galore.

    Stealthy high tech drone tankers that cost a fortune falls into the “nice to have” category. The cost will skyrocket. The tech issues will turn out to be stubborn. The program will go over cost, and be truncated. Leaving us, at some undefined point in the future, still, without tankers. Same as it ever was.

    An S-3 tanker in hand, is worth a multitude of hypothetical drone tankers in the bush…

    • Paid for, and used. How many hours on each airframe? How much to pull it out of storage, clean up the aircraft, then modify it to a tanker? Will it need new engines? What about electronics? Electronics can really rip the cost.

      That’s not to mention the used issue. How much will it cost to reburb, then maintain old airframes?

      It’s nice to see you’re so experienced with robotic aircraft that you can see the future so clearly.

      • Jon

        I’m experienced enough with our system to see the future fairly clearly.

        Getting existing, proven airframes out of storage is more expensive than developing, building, and fielding an entirely new hi-tech stealth robotic aircraft? Many of which, IIRC, were freshly re-winged and re-furbed prior to parking.

        Who knew?

        How much is it going to cost to develop them into tankers? Will it need new engines? New electronics? How much will these cost to build? How much will it cost to get the crews into the pipeline to fly and maintain them?

        About double whatever number they come up with. And about twice as long.

      • Arctic_Fox

        Most S-3s went into the desert in remarkably good condition. Or so I’ve been told.

  • warpigfo

    “Extra bonus, the carrier airwing and aircraft carriers will build experience of maintaining and operating with UAS at sea. We will learn things we have not even thought of yet. We will refine the equipment, modify requirements, and smart men and women will come up with ideas that will make the next steps a greater success.”
    That, in my opinion, is the critical point. The CVW will be able to accrue thousands of hours of actual, real world UAS testing in short order. All of which can be folded back into the “spiral” development of both deep strike and organic ISR UAS, shortening the development cycle for those critical capabilities.

  • Lazarus

    A well-written and informative post. I would just add that the joint operating context of the last 25 years further damaged the Navy’s ability to replace its long range strike capability.The post-Cold War world was envisioned as one where long range carrier aircraft were unneeded. Land-based air facilities would always be available for joint and combined air/ground task force interventions around the Afro-Eurasian littoral. Carrier aviation was a nice addition, but only if it could mount large numbers of sorties with light attack aircraft (as I believe Jerry Hendrix recently suggested). Sal is right in suggesting the Navy needs to restore a deep strike capability.

    • TronsAway

      Regarding deep strike, the use of the AJ Savage, and later the A-3 Skywarrior and A-5 Vigilante as long-range bombers was a one-way proposition. They were the TLAM of their time. The CV was only considered a “first strike” option from the mid-’50s to the very early-’60s.

      Given a 33 ton gross weight, and an 8.75 ton payload, the Super Hornet is hardly a light strike fighter. That load is the equivalent of three Chevrolet Suburbans strapped to the jet externally, and only 500 pounds less than the A-6 was rated for. Additionally, the ranges CAPT Hendrix cited in his study are not supported by NATOPS.

      • sid

        Regarding deep strike, the use of the AJ Savage, and later the A-3 Skywarrior and A-5 Vigilante as long-range bombers was a one-way proposition.

        In retrospect perhaps. At the time it was believed that they could survive the mission. The bigger worry was the fate of “Mother”…

        As for tanking, the converted KA-3’s could give away 29,000 lbs out to 460nm from the boat.

        Can a Super Hornet do that?

      • TronsAway

        Can a Super Hornet do that?

        Nope. Nor should it have to.

        My recollection is that the A-3 had 29K pounds of JP-5 with an additional 4.4K pounds with the auxiliary tanks and tanker package installed. With a 36K base weight, 34K fuel, and a 70K weight board, an A-3 so configured would burn about 2-3K fuel during start/taxi/takeoff and climbout to optimum cruising altitude. The Skywarrior’s recovery fuel was 3-4K for tank+1 on the ball (two chances to land). So 34-2-3=29K fuel remaining overhead. In order for that aircraft to have 29K give 460nm from the boat (roughly the distance between Washington, DC and Portland, ME) it would have to burn 0 pounds of fuel in transit. Cahn’t get the-ah frum he-ah. Nope.

        I’m sure the KA-3 had lots of gas to give at 460nm, just not a full load. Hence,I have no problem with the Navy’s idea to build a big unmanned refueling aircraft.

      • @NotRizzo

        That long range strike role hasn’t so much been lost, but transferred from the CVW to the escorts (including SSN/SSGNs) with LACMs. A CBG commander can still reach out and touch the same spots as he could with an A-6, but now he doesn’t need to worry about attrition of his airwing caused by sending big slow attack planes into the teeth of enemy air defense (and not getting his pilots killed!).
        Ultimately I see the CBARS evolving into an off-board flying magazine (or Arsenal Plane) to deliver SOWs for the stealthy ISR “trigger man” or via E-2D battle commander (including potentially carrying large numbers of AMRAAMs for a much wider air defense umbrella than possible with traditional CAP patrols – though a CBARS type airframe doesn’t allow for the kinetic energy transfer airframe speed you want to maximize the capabilities of air-to-air missiles)

    • grandpabluewater

      Circle the day on the calendar, we agree. Be a looooonnnng time before that happens again.

      • Lazarus

        Other than LCS, I generally agree with much of what Sal has to say.

  • Silly question time: what are the plus/minuses of using a modified E2? Still in production, already has modern avionics, well-known to the Navy techs.

    Would it be speed (max 350 knots) or capacity? From Wiki the empty weight is 40k lbs, while max loaded is 57k lbs.

  • AFCM

    Ok… Hard to judge how good any platform is without talking about “give”, spot factor, ability to consolidate, external tanks, buddy store, internal hose, dual hose capabilty. I don’t think I need to go on.

  • VelocityVector

    I’ve advocated publicly for autonomous systems, my academic, industrial and professionally-related field, for more than a decade through defense channels. And so I’m delighted to see open systems being discussed for funding that will enable the inevitable mission creep.

    Initially, they’ll come as refuelers apparently, then prove their worth in broader context and justify jettisonable fuel stores to preserve a valuable platform, then be equipped with defensive measures migrating to active offensive systems, and then replacing entire flights of manned aircraft irrespective of mission. By that time, soon enough, it will become unmistakenly clear to the aviation community that manned aircraft will be relegated to initial nuclear strike roles, if, and not much else save SAR for drunken sailors fallen overboard.

    Deny it all you want and substract from other naval capabilities with negative spends, but the writing is on the wall for all to see.

    • I’m sorry, but autonomous systems cannot do what needs to be done in actual combat under real conditions. Only in theory, in controlled exercises, or in highly artificial and stable vignettes does it even come close to working. We are not anywhere near being able to code in the kill/don’t kill & prioritization requirements that need to be made in combat, not to mention the ROE and judgement calls. If you can’t in 2015 get P-8 and F-35 code to work properly on basic combat systems operations, don’t kid yourself that you will have autonomous systems wandering the planet conducting the full range of operations in the kill chain.

      Supply, sure. ISR, sure. The rest? You’ve been watching too many movies with your critical thinking modules turned to standby.

      You don’t want that either. If you do, you need to review the entire canon of post-Enlightenment thoughts on the nature of war.

      • VelocityVector

        Tell that to designers of the conventional, specialist and nuclear variants of P-500 Bazalt and 9K720 Iskander, inter alia. Once the red button is pushed, those systems were beyond human control. If the US chooses not to lead, so be it. So-called “AI” technologies are low barrier to entry ones and other nations will move the ball forward.

  • Ike_Kiefer

    UCLASS is a concept, not yet an airframe. It doesn’t need to be a brand new, exquisitely expensive, marginally airworthy flying dorito. Take the S-3s in the boneyard and make them into drones. They can tank, they can do SSC, they can drop sonobuoys, they can do NTISR with optics and other sensors, they can even deliver tomahawks and PGMs. Without the ejection seats and crew, they have another 2,000 lb of payload for fuel or sensors. With standoff weapons and the ability to fly one-way profiles without the need to round-trip human occupants, they can also become ultra deep strike assets that can fly innocuous airliner profiles, pickle their weapons on the primary target, and then fly themselves into the secondary target as robot kamikazes. Lockheed-Martin can pay me now.

  • Ike_Kiefer

    BTW, I wouldn’t trust any quantitative analysis coming out of CNA these days. They have been completely co-opted into the ideological agenda of the current administration. They are focused on cranking out paper after paper promoting biofuels, climate change alarmism, solar and wind power, and national energy policies that can be empirically shown to be at odds with the facts, and to be supporting policies that are achieving the opposite of their stated aims. In fact, they have become like Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes: if they promote it, it is most assuredly a thing to avoid. If their analysis says modifying the existing program and airframe into a tanker is the most cost-effective, their recent history of veracity and accuracy would argue that is the one COA we should definitely avoid.

  • b2

    You don’t remember me, I’ve been fighting this battle unsuccessfully for 15 years inside. I stopped coming around blogs after Lex bought the farm…so sad.
    The bottom line is doing the overhead tanking role requires an ability for “airmanship”- hi-speed, low speed, dirty configuration, rendezvous’, a cool collected approach to fundamentals and then you get to land last on a pitching deck. Human airmanship required…. Much more demanding than any JDAM mission over ISIS territory. If you can’t do it people take a swim…It’s that important.
    Can a machine do that? Methinks not. Not yet. Don’t equate this carrier overhead tanking mission with mission tanking off an Air Force or Omega tanker- entirely different mission set. Being a tanker pilot is like being in an airshow where precision counts. Maybe a google car can do it, but it isn’t in 3D moving at300Kts and 1000″ off the sea!
    The S-3 was perfect for this once. Why not again as a manned/unmanned drone. Plus, it could carry weapons, real weapons for War at Sea not 100Lb toys and it can land safely in all weathers…It easily meets the ISR role inherently.
    the airframes are free as someone below pointed out and there are over 80 available and they have ages of fatigue life left on them. Why spend 10 more years developing a huge $80M plastic drone that looks like predator or bams? It’ll have to be huge to do any of those missions. That will come with it’s own technical issues…..
    However, this is all too logical, it’ll never happen. Not elegant, or 50 state friendly.

  • Earl Tower

    The nice thing about using tanking as the first mission purposes for a UAV, is it gives time to develop the hardware while the software and electronic warfare experts are figuring out better ways for command and control and autonomous behavior to be refined for UAVs. Right now their necessary command and control link is to susceptible to jamming, and their autonomous software is not advanced enough to handle independent operations for much besides RTB and station keeping.

  • @NotRizzo

    I can see a future where the manned ISR platform (the F-35C in the near term) flying in high stealth “clean” configuration provides targeting information for an unmanned Arsenal Plane trailing behind, as close to contested airspace as possible, to deliver the combat load out of Stand-Off Weapons the F-35C can’t carry internally.