US Navy to Review Four Designs for UCLASS; Plans Fielding Within 3-6 Years

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In December 2012 Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy conducted deck handling trials of the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75). Trials were designed to demonstrate the aircraft's ability to integrate smoothly with carrier operations. Photo: Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System selected by the US Navy to demonstrate carrier operations of an unmanned aircraft. Photo: Northrop Grumman
Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System selected by the US Navy to demonstrate carrier operations of an unmanned aircraft. Photo: Northrop Grumman

The Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) intends to issue four firm-fixed-price contracts for Preliminary Design Reviews (PDR) for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) Air Vehicle. The contracts are expected to be issued by the summer of 2013, supporting up to two years of work. This new unmanned combat unmanned aerial vehicle (UCAV) system will provide the US Navy persistent unmanned semi-autonomous, carrier-based, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting, and strike capability to support 24/7 carrier operational coverage.The system to be reviews include three principal elements – the unmanned aerial vehicle (platform), datalink for communications and control and the carrier-based segment, including the handling and operation on-board the carrier, which will also provide the human interface of the entire system. Each of the four contracts will cover two years work (2013-15) and will include funding for post-PDR design maturation and follow-on engineering efforts to advance the designs.

Contracts are expected to be awarded to four companies – the Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and Lockheed Martin, the four companies are expected to be ready for PDR-level NAVAIR evaluation by the third quarter of FY14. Based on this review the Navy plans to select a single proposal for full scale development, anticipating the UCLASS capability could be fielded within three to six years.

All four companies have solid plans for a carrier-based UCLASS type system. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have concept designs of stealth UAVs designed for carrier operation and General Atomics have flown the jet-powered stealthy Predator C (Avenger) that could assume that role. Only Northrop Grumman has a flying vehicle designed to operate on board aircraft carriers – the X-47B, scheduled for carrier testing next year.