(MILITARY TIMES) The Navy has begun looking into options for fielding a stealthy drone capable of locating and attacking targets alongside manned jets before the end of the decade.
The Navy wants information on carrier-based, “low-observable, Unmanned Air Systems concepts optimized for irregular and hybrid warfare scenarios capable of integrating with manned platforms as part of the carrier air wing by the end of 2018 to support limited operations in contested scenarios,” reads a request for information released by the Navy on March 19.
The aircraft, dubbed Unmanned Carrier-launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, must be able to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as strike operations, according to the document.
The RfI is a first step toward developing “the acquisition strategy to provide a limited inventory of fleet operable systems capable of performing the UCLASS mission,” reads a March 25 e-mail from Navy Capt. Jeffrey Penfield, UCLASS program manager.
The sea service is gearing up to perform the first flight of a similar aircraft, the Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), later this year. That aircraft is a stealthy, strike fighter-size drone designed to demonstrate that the Navy can operate advanced strike UAVs from carrier flight decks.
In contrast, The UCLASS system is being developed with the specific focus on flying combat ISR and strike missions while incorporating lessons learned from the UCAS program, writes Penfield.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has ordered the Navy and Air Force to determine what mix of manned and unmanned strike and spy jets as well as long-range weapons will be needed to penetrate 21st-century air defenses being developed by nations such as Russia and China.
The Air Force had been looking to develop and field a new manned stealth bomber by 2018 — the same year by which, according to the RFI, the Navy wants to field CLASS. Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the Air Force effort to field a new bomber on hold until the Pentagon can figure out the best mix of weapons and aircraft needed to overcome advanced air defenses.
Late last year, the Air Force revealed that it operates Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel, a stealthy looking drone nicknamed “the Beast of Kandahar,” from bases in Afghanistan to “directly support combatant commander needs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate targets.”