Life within the Naval Air Systems Command these days resembles one of TV's overheated Washington soap operas, awash with secrets, feuds and factions. The plot has had some suitably mysterious turns, like a “clerical error” that led to publication of a $20 billion solicitation for more F/A-18s in October, which was denounced so emphatically that there was obviously something to it.

But no drama is complete without a covert subplot wrapped in another secret, which is the writing of the requirement for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) system. There are at least two groups in the Pentagon with fundamentally different visions of what Uclass should look like, and there is not much time before a clear decision must be made.

Stealth is critical to any unmanned air system, as I pointed out nine months ago (AW&ST March 18, p. 14), because an unmanned aerial system (UAS) can't shoot back, or even evade threats very well. The Uclass debate is not about whether to have stealth, but how much of it the Navy wants to pay for.

The subject of degrees of stealth is not much discussed, because of secrecy, and because companies with big financial stakes prefer that people continue to assume that all stealth is created equal.

It's not. There have been multiple levels of stealth since Northrop's Tacit Blue demonstrated all-aspect radar cross-section (RCS) reduction and the Advanced Technology Bomber requirement that led to the B-2 and called for ultra-low RCS extending into the VHF band.

There are more levels today: The Advanced Super Hornet falls between most in-service fighters and the F-35, which in turn is not quite as good in RCS as the F-22, while the F-22—and anything else that has body parts in the same size range as VHF wavelengths—isn't the same as blended-wing-body designs, from Neuron to the RQ-180 and B-2. Russia's determined effort to field mobile, powerful VHF radars makes those distinctions more important than ever.

But the Navy wants Uclass quickly and (in Pentagon terms) cheaply. Some UAS supporters believe speed and low cost are essential to overcome opposition and inertia from a pilot-dominated community. Others don't want to see a penetrating, offensive Uclass landing on a carrier, competing too obviously with the F-35C, which looks very expensive compared to a Super Hornet and has yet to land on a carrier. Nobody forgets that the seminal studies of a carrier-based armed UAS depicted it as the air wing's key long-range strike weapon.

The fast-and-cheap team's simple Uclass is reflected by General Atomics's design. It has chines and edge alignments, but the tails give the game away. It's not going to go up against a world-class defense, at least not twice. Some factions see it as a counter-terror system, a seagoing Reaper.

But the U.S. already has more Reapers than it needs, and the added value of being able to cover remote locations from a carrier station is dubious. Putting a carrier strike group to work hunting terrorists is like sending a pack of Rottweilers to catch mice. A cat will do, and costs less to feed.

That logic motivates people in the Navy, and elsewhere in the Pentagon, who want a high-end Uclass. Their hand has been strengthened in public this year by the success of the X-47B carrier trials, and in secret by some interesting results from design studies. They should win this one.

The place to find the money for that is in the F-35 program (AW&ST Aug. 19, p. 19). Since the summer, the case for buying 340 F-35Bs for the Marines has been weakened by the service's admission that only 10% of operations will use the heavy, expensive short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing kit. What that implies is that the F-35B will only do Stovl when it is part of small detachments on amphibious-warfare ships; 100 F-35Bs would be more than enough for that.

So what replaces the majority, expeditionary land-based piece of Marine air, now equipped with aging Hornets? The Marines are all about close air support (CAS). They want to operate from runways that are shorter and rougher than most fighters need. Wouldn't it be great if someone had a force of around 200 dedicated CAS aircraft they were trying to divest?

They do and they are. They're called A-10s (AW&ST Dec. 9, p. 15) and transferring them to the Marines would do more than create a durable, focused force to provide CAS, not just for the Marines but for the Army and special operations forces. It would give the Navy's army's air force a mission.