Tags: UAS, UCLASS, Unmanned Systems
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‚Äôs Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) effort is being retooled as primarily a carrier-based unmanned aerial refueling platform ‚ÄĒ one of several Pentagon directed naval aviation mandates in the service‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúThe 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,‚ÄĚ one defense official told USNI News on Monday.
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 ‚Äúalmost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly,‚ÄĚ he said in address at the Navy League‚Äôs 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.