Sec Mabus states UCLASS is a stepping stone to an unmanned fight and ought to be focused on ISR:
Ray Mabus likes robots. The Navy Secretary has declared the F-35 will be “the last manned strike fighter” the service ever buys and invested heavily in unmanned aircraft, boats, and submersibles. But Mabus has frustrated drone advocates on one major program: the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft.
This morning, Mabus defended the Navy’s plans for a relatively modest UCLASS optimized for the “surveillance” aspect of its mission rather than the “strike” part — but he also promised UCLASS would be “the bridge” to a future unmanned strike plane, the one that replaces F-35. Given that the F-35 will be around for decades, however, this two-stage approach is unlikely to satisfy UCLASS critics like Senate ARmed Services chairman John McCain, House Seapower chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, and key players in the Pentagon itself, all of whom want a strike drone ASAP to deal with China.
Mabus said today at a DefenseOne leadership breakfast that “I’m for a full-up penetrating strike fighter” — eventually. “We see UCLASS as getting to that,” he said — but, he made clear, not as being that.
“For UCLASS…we ought to have endurance, we ought to have range, we ought to have payload,” he said, notably omitting stealth. “It should be an ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] platform, it should be a refueling platform, but it also should be a strike platform [for] uncontested or minimally contested environments.”
In the longer term, he said, “it ought to be the bridge to a full-up strike fighter — an autonomous strike fighter — that [operates] in contested environments.”
Senator Forbes replies:
“Building ‘bridges’ sounds great, but at some point you need to cross them,” Rep. Forbes snapped in an email when I asked about Mabus’s comments. “While I understand the Navy’s desire to ‘crawl, walk, and run,’ I am concerned that in the race between anti-access and power projection capabilities, we are falling further and further behind. The carrier air wing is going to need a long-range, deep penetrating strike asset, and it is going to need it soon. Given that the UCLASS program is supposed to deliver its first operational aircraft to the fleet in 2022-23, I am concerned that the program seems to be driven by the needs of today and not those of tomorrow.”