The Senate Armed Services Committee — concerned with the Navy’s direction for its planned unmanned carrier aircraft program — wants the Pentagon to oversee development of two new carrier capable prototype unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and restart testing of the service’s two Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) in a combined $725 million effort, according to a summary of the SASC’s markup of the Fiscal Year 2016 defense authorization bill released Thursday evening.
The SASC bill reflects ongoing sentiments from legislators in both the House and Senate that oppose the Navy’s development of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Strike and Surveillance (UCLASS) that would have limited ability to extend the lethal range of U.S. carrier air wings into defended enemy airspace and act primarily as an information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform for the carrier strike group.
In a March letter, SASC chairman Sen. John McCain told Secretary of Defense Ash Carter “developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily an ISR platform and unable to operate effectively in medium- to high –level threat environments would be operationally and strategically misguided.”
According to the summary, “the bill includes $375.0 million for competitive prototyping of at least two follow-on air systems that move toward a UCLASS program capable of long-range strike in a contested environment.”
Measures in the bill would allow the Navy to continue developing its own self-directed version of UCLASS — using $134.7 million in excess development funds obligated in 2015. Development of the UCLASS air-segment has been paused due to an ongoing Pentagon wide UAV strategic program review (SPR, pronounced spear) inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and overseen by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work.
The additional testing and prototyping authority proposed in the SASC bill would give (OSD) more control in shaping UCLASS into a more lethal strike platform in line with the original strategic vision for carrier UAVs, outlined in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, USNI News understands.
The summary said the bill “expresses concern that the Navy’s current requirements for the UCLASS program place disproportionate emphasis on unrefueled endurance to provide organic ISR support to the carrier strike group. The bill recognizes the potential of integrating unmanned combat aircraft in the carrier air wing.”
In parallel to the prototyping effort, the SASC bill gives OSD $350 million “to continue technology maturation and risk reduction with the existing UCAS-D vehicles that will benefit UCLASS and other unmanned aerial systems programs,” read the summary.