April 12, 2010      

The military unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry continues to boom and bloom. The “boom” results from a market that is rapidly growing in both revenue and the number of deployed systems. New applications–prototyped, developed, and fielded–provide the “bloom.”

Here’s a case in point: On March 19, 2010 the U.S. Navy posted a Request-for-Information (RIA) for an “Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System.” An RIA is not a Request-for-Proposal (RFP), which will eventually follow, but it is the first step in the development of a new UAS system, in this case for the Navy.

“Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike” is quite a mouthful, so in keeping with a long military tradition, we will refer to the system by its acronym: UCLASS.

The UCLASS RIA calls for carrier-based, low-observable (LO) UAS concept platforms capable of performing persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations. According to the Navy, the systems should be able to fly 11 to 14 hours (and be refueled in flight) and operate in conjunction with manned aircraft systems, presumably F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs). In the RIA, the Navy requirements call for deployability assessments by December 2017, with full deployment by Q4 2018.

It is interesting to note that in addition to the expected persistent ISR capabilities, the RIA specifies that the concepts should also provide strike capabilities. That is, the requested system is a type of unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

In this respect, and others, such as support for mid-air refueling and carrier-based aviation, the UCLASS systems are similar to Northrop Grumman’s stealthy X-47B UCAV, which was developed for the Navy under the Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. Other UCAS systems include General Atomics’ Predator C Avenger and Boeing’s Phantom Ray, neither of which is funded by the Navy. Both systems are internally funded. The amount of money required to develop airborne systems of this complexity is staggering and speaks volumes for the perceived strength of the UAS market, whether the systems are only for ISR operations or are armed UCAVS or LO UCLASS.