The U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) effort may get lots of headlines for the innovative technology that it represents, but the armed service is trying to use the program to prod the acquisition world toward thinking of unmanned systems in terms of mission capability rather than units purchased.

That was one sentiment expressed by the Navy’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, Rear Adm. Mat Winter, in his Aug. 13 keynote address to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s (AUVSI) annual conference in Washington.

“What we’re going forward with in our budget documents is talking about the number of orbits [i.e., missions] that we will procure,” Winter told AUVSI attendees in response to an audience question from Capital Alpha Partners analyst Byron Callan.

The shift in language could be helpful to Navy goals as it and the rest of the U.S. military and intelligence sector enter a seemingly long-term austere budget environment. One reason is that requested spending levels would be more closely tied to stated military requirements, versus relatively esoteric unit numbers. In turn, cuts to the request by lawmakers or others could appear more difficult to make, or at least justify.

Winter did not suggest all of this in explaining the “paradigm-shifting nomenclature” to AUVSI attendees. But he did argue that orbits, rather than aircraft numbers, was the way to procure unmanned combat aircraft.

In the end, aircraft numbers “will depend upon the air vehicle maker strategy,” according to Winter. “So, as we go forward through the solicitation, we’ll be able to understand how many air vehicle subsystems when we select the final air vehicle vendor for a single orbit.”

Winter said the Navy eyes “early operational capability” from 2018 to 2020 for Uclass, but a more precise answer will not be available until the Navy signs the contract with the system’s prime contractor.

According to Callan, each orbit could require a total of five air vehicles, and the Navy is expected to be targeting $150 million per orbit. That would mean $30 million per air vehicle, if there are five aircraft.

“That unit price is well below the unit price of a manned strike aircraft,” Callan told investor clients later. “This program is important for investors to watch. Clearly it has to survive potential budget cuts and the pricing needs to be realized, but the timing suggests that it could conceivably impact F-35 demand later this decade and F/A-18s in Navy inventory.”