It is not just because operating manned and unmanned aircraft side by side from a carrier deck will be hard that the U.S. Navy is moving cautiously to deploy unmanned technology. After the debacle of the General Dynamics/McDonnell Douglas A-12, and the delays to the Lockheed Martin F-35C, the Navy wants a program success. To that end, the service has structured its first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft program to provide a modest capability at minimum risk.

Following on from the precedent-setting naval Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D), the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (Uclass) program essentially is a technology development effort that will leave behind a residual operational capability.

Before that, such is its caution, the Navy will fund all four Uclass competitors—Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI), Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman—through to preliminary design reviews (PDR) for their Uclass concepts. This will give the service a better understanding of the capabilities—and risks—of the competing designs before launching the technology development (TD) phase.

“We are not even at Milestone A, but the Navy has developed a capabilities development document [CDD], which is typically a prerequisite for Milestone B,” says Bob Ruszkowski, Uclass capture manager for Lockheed Martin Skunk Works.

“They took quite a bit of time to get to the CDD. For the last three years, industry has worked hard to provide a lot of information to help them understand the art of the possible and help formulate the requirements in the CDD,” he says. “We know the key performance parameters and key system attributes. We've seen draft specifications derived from [both],” he says. “The Navy has asked for feedback—heading checks—on what will have a large versus a small impact.”

Now industry is waiting for a request for proposals (RFP) for the PDR phase, which will be an 8-9 month effort. Competitors then expect another RFP for the “air segment” phase, under which the Navy will select a single contractor to design, build, test and deploy the Uclass air vehicles. A separate “ground segment” program will independently and concurrently develop a common control system to be used first with Uclass, but ultimately with the MQ-4C Triton, MQ-8B/C Fire Scout and other Navy UAVs. The Navy will act as lead system integrator for the overall Uclass program.

The Navy has little choice but to follow this measured path. “The fiscal 2013 defense bill has specific language that Uclass must complete PDR before downselect,” says Ruszkowski. “The Navy has to have understood the technical maturity [of the bids] when it comes to reviewing the air-segment proposals.”

Over this time, Uclass has converged on a requirement for persistence and a focus on the surveillance mission, but with a light-strike capability of carrying any 250-lb. weapon in the Navy's inventory. The basic payload will be an electro-optical/infrared/laser-designator sensor, with growth to a radar. Uclass also will carry a signals-intelligence payload, to be part of a family of systems planned to replace the Navy's Lockheed EP-3Es.

The Navy's requirement is to maintain a 24/7 surveillance orbit a specified distance from the carrier. Bidders are not discussing performance details, but because of the carrier deck cycle—the cadence between aircraft launch and recovery waves—Uclass “will need at least 12 hours of persistence,” says Ruszkowski.

The requirement for survivability is shaped by a desire to operate Uclass in contested airspace, not initially but eventually. “Lockheed Martin's approach is to offer a system that can readily expand through retrofit. It will be inherently survivable, but we can add capabilities later that will make it stealthy. It will be inherently low-observable, but does not have to begin service with all the attributes,” Ruszkowski says. “Lockheed's approach will allow the Navy to operate in areas where [Triton] will not be able to, through stealth, emissions control and signature management.”

Lockheed is proposing an all-new design for Uclass, a tailless flying wing, but is drawing on “50 years of unmanned-aircraft experience, including the low-observable RQ-170 Sentinel,” he says. “We've not done it for an aircraft carrier, but we can draw on the F-35C, which is qualifying all stealth requirements for the carrier. Risk is mitigated by integrating proven technologies. We are confident we can meet the Navy's schedule.”

Ruszkowski does not believe offering an all-new design puts Lockheed at a disadvantage over Northrop, with its X-47B UCAS-D experience, or GA-ASI, which is flying land-based prototypes of its Predator C Avenger. “Naval Air Systems Command has a strict regime of testing for carrier qualification, for any aircraft. There are no short cuts,” he says.

The Navy plans to deploy an initial Uclass capability at the end of the TD phase—a single squadron of 4-6 aircraft on a carrier. “It's a hybrid program, which is a challenge. There will be additional development after initial deployment,” he says. Deployment is expected 3-6 years after contract award—but before 2020—a wide date range “the Navy has not explained precisely,” Ruszkowski notes.

Because the program will be budget-constrained, it is likely the flight-test aircraft will make up the first deployed squadron. “The service-life specification goes beyond a test program, whereas the X-78B was always designed as an experiment, so has a limited life,” says Ruszkowski.