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Good-Bye, UCLASS; Hello, Unmanned Tanker, More F-35Cs In 2017 Budget

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The X-47B drone plugs into an aerial refueling tanker for the first time.

The experimental X-47B drone plugs into an aerial refueling tanker for the first time.

CORRECTED: Navy says new drone will have “limited strike” capability

PENTAGON: After more than a year of intense debate over whether the Navy’s future UCLASS drone should be a long-range stealth bomber or a lightly armed scout, the Defense Department has chosen — neither. Instead, the 2017 budget proposes a program that is less ambitious than either version of UCLASS but, to their mind, more immediately useful than either: an unmanned, carrier-launched aerial refueling tanker.

“What you’re going to see is not a UCLASS [Unmanned Carrier-Launched Strike & Surveillance aircraft] anymore: It’s a carrier-based tanker that is going to be integrated into the carrier air wing,” a senior defense official told me.

“The combination of buying more [F/A-18] Es and Fs, freeing up Es and Fs that are currently doing tanking, plus more F-35s, this is the best way to handle the problem in the near term,” the defense official said. “Right now, most of the aerial refueling is [Super Hornet] Es and Fs, which is causing a problem when you’re already short of fighters.”

An Australian Hornet conducts aerial refueling

An Australian Hornet conducts aerial refueling

“People will say, ‘well, don’t you want to have an unmanned bomber coming off the carrier?'” the defense official acknowledged. ‘We’d say, sure we would, but, right now, based on our analysis, this is the best way to go about the problem. We don’t have enough money.”

The tanker would have some capabilities to relay communications and perhaps conduct reconnaissance, but it would be unarmed. [CORRECTION: During its Feb. 9 budget briefing. the Navy said the new CBARS drone — Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System — would have “limited strike” capability]. It would be about the size of the Super Hornet fighter, and it would not be stealthy.

Rather than penetrate enemy airspace itself, as the stealth UCLASS would have, the tanker will free up strike fighters from refueling duties and extend their range. Rather than invest in combat drones, the new Navy budget plan instead will buy more manned aircraft — both F/A-18E/F Super Hornets (in 2018, not 2017) and stealthy F-35C Joint Strike Fighters — to cover the current shortfall in strike fighters.

“This was the fastest way that we could think of to get stealth on the deck and allow the carrier to fight from range…..based on the resources that we had,” the official said. Given rising threats from Russia and China, he said, “we need to get more stealth on the carrier deck in the early ’20s” — too short a timeline to develop an all-new aircraft.



So “we decided to accelerate F-35C buys,” the official said. “Some people would say, ‘let’s go all in on the UCLASS and make it stealthy,’ but if you did that, you wouldn’t be able to get can the stealth on the deck as fast. There’s just no way you could have done it.”

The F-35C is in low rate initial production and already flying, while an unmanned strike aircraft is on the drawing board. Better to enable the F-35 fleet now than to wait for an unmanned bomber to become available at some unknown time and cost in the future, the official argued.

“Getting an unmanned system, even though it might be non-stealthy and not a strike [aircraft], and getting the F-35 on the decks faster was a higher priority for us than getting a stealthy unmanned system in this budget,” the official said. “We have to spend a little more time to determine where we’re going to go on the unmanned strike side.”

In fact, the budget is so tight and the priority on the F-35 is so high that the Navy won’t be able to buy any F/A-18E/F Super Hornets this year, despite its desire for more manned strike fighters.

The multi-year budget plan may “look a little weird,” because “we didn’t have the budget headroom in ’17 to put airplanes in,” the official said. Instead, the Pentagon expects to get 14 Super Hornets in 2016 — 12 already added by Congress and two more requested to replace combat losses — and will buy another 14 in 2018. [CORRECTION: A followup email from the official’s staff made clear that the profile’s arguably even weirder: 12 planes — five Super Hornets and seven EA-18G Growler electronic warfare variants — added by Congress in 2016; two Super Hornets as replacements for combat losses in ’17; and 14 Super Hornets in ’18].

So where are the orders to keep Boeing’s Saint Louis production line going in 2017? “What we are assuming and hoping is the Kuwaiti F/A-18 deal will help us fill in the hole,” the official said.

In the very long term, the Navy is looking at what’s variously called F/A-XX or Next Generation Air Dominance, with a debate already broiling over whether it should be manned or unmanned. (Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is on the record saying the F-35 is the “last manned strike fighter” the Navy should ever buy). The official Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) for the F/A-XX just started last week.

But doesn’t abandoning UCLASS contradict the Pentagon’s emphasis on long range and stealth to penetrate increasingly sophisticated Chinese and Russian-made air defenses, I asked? Doesn’t it contradict the “Third Offset Strategy” with its emphasis on autonomous unmanned systems and “human-machine teaming“?

The Air Force’s newly awarded contract for a stealthy Long-Range Strike Bomber is a key part of the answer to that “anti-access/area denial” problem, the official said. On the drone front, he continued, “there’s a whole lot of different things we’re doing in unmanned systems. Some of them will be apparent of the budget and some of them won’t.”

What do you think?