The U.S. Navy is defending its requirements process for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) program in the face of sustained criticism, arguing the final specifications will not be set until after it reviews responses from industry to the draft request for proposals (RFP).

The Navy is accused of tilting its requirements toward the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission and away from the stealthy, long-range strike capability many outside military experts have called for, including Robert Work before his appointment as deputy defense secretary.

Senior officers say the Uclass top-level requirements have not been changed since they were signed off by the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), but will not be finalized until after the industry teams have submitted their responses to the draft RFP, due by June 1.

The two pages of top-level requirements approved by the CNO were turned into 3,600 specifications in the draft RFP, and each assigned a level by the Navy, says Capt. Chris Corgnati, deputy director for ISR capabilities in the Office of the CNO, adding, "Did we get all those levels right? Industry will tell us."

The Navy has not detailed its Uclass system requirements publicly. But Rear Adm. Mat Winter, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, summarizes them as providing "two orbits, 24/7, for ISR, targeting and strike at tactically significant ranges in permissive to graduated contested environments, 5-6 years from contract award."

"We have taken the last six months to make sure we have the design requirements correctly flowed down and have a technically feasible solution space," he told the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month.

The draft RFP was released to the four bidders – Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman – in mid-April. "The final RFP is on track for July," Winter says. "Any changes will be influenced by industry-day feedback on our business strategy and technical design."

There have been reports that some of the teams, unhappy with the balance of requirements, may elect not to bid. Corgnati characterizes this as companies "playing to the strengths of their designs," by arguing some requirements are more important than others, and a normal part of competition.

Lockheed, for example, is proposing a flying-wing design with inherent stealth it claims can be enhanced over the system’s life. Northrop is expected to offer a similar tailless design based on its X-47B. But Boeing and General Atomics are pursuing more conventional, ISR-leaning configurations.

If industry brings forward any changes, the requirements will be updated and sent back through Navy leadership for approval, Winter says, but the Uclass schedule does not allow for a major revision without incurring a delay. Contract award is planned by mid-2015, and fielding of a limited capability by 2020.

But the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) has inserted language in its markup of the defense budget that, it if survives, would prohibit the authorization and appropriation of any fiscal 2015 funds for a Uclass contract until the defense secretary certifies the requirements in a report to Congress.

The HASC says it is concerned that investment in a non-stealthy Uclass "delays or even precludes investment in a future stealthy, long-range penetrating platform," and that the current acquisition strategy provides "insufficient time and funding for contractors to mature their designs …"

The other budget committees have yet to weigh in on Uclass, but all four will "each get a full brief on the capabilities in the draft RFP," Winter says, adding "Their perceptions are slightly skewed." Any constraint on funding or direction to review or revise requirements would delay the program, Corgnati says.

"If the CNO decides to go one way or the other, we will follow," Winter says. "But at this point the only changes to the RFP will come through our industry partners."