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unmanned CATOBAR combat aircraft operations

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  • unmanned CATOBAR combat aircraft operations

    I'm sure they have good reasons why they chose the route they have taken. To me, it would seem sensible to convert some new or used F/A-18 to an optionally manned configuration, and use those to gain more operational experience with unmanned CATOBAR aircraft to learn more about what they might want in a new design before setting requirements for a new aircraft. Not trivializing the design effort, but since all F/A-18 are digital fly by wire, I would expect those might lend themselves well to conversion. Introducing something else requires supporting that other something, and they already support F/A-18.

    Leaders debate next steps for UCLASS, carrier drones

    By Meghann Myers, Staff writer
    11:02 a.m. EDT October 3, 2015

    Planes without a pilot in the seat are the future of aviation, top Navy officials have said, but aircraft carriers are in a holding pattern as they wait for the Navy's embattled next-generation carrier drone to get off the ground.

    The House and Senate Armed Services committees agreed to invest $350 million next year into pre-acquisition projects for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Aerial Strike and Surveillance program. In the meantime, some in the carrier Navy would like to get some more practice before UCLASS comes online around 2025.

    But that's complicated, said one unmanned aviation expert, because the Navy doesn't want to keep flying a drone designed by one company while it's asking all of them to compete for the follow-on.

    At the annual Tailhook Reunion near Reno, Nevada, in mid-September, a senior officer asked a panel of admirals whether a case could be made to use the Navy's unmanned strike fighter prototype to practice carrier integration in the mean time.

    "Is there a way that we can start interjecting unmanned aviation into the carrier deck early, instead of waiting until we get UCLASS through the DoD 5000 process?" asked Cmdr. Mike "Jockey" Lisa, an EA-18G Growler pilot and the requirements manager for Electronic Attack Wing Pacific at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, who was referring to the Pentagon's acquisition process.

    The Navy does have an unmanned carrier jet, the X-47B, but its program came with a strict list of milestones. Once it proved that it could land on a carrier, take off, integrate with manned jets in the pattern and then aerially refuel, it was designated for the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

    The aircraft, which looks like a miniature version of Northrop's old B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, is wider than the F/A-18 Hornets it has flown with and is designed to fly at Mach 0.9 at up to 40,000 feet over more than 2,100 nautical miles before it needs to be refueled.

    "In other words, other than just a neat demonstration — a one-off — actually putting it to some operations so that we can culturally start figuring some things out, by not waiting a generation until we get through that process," Lisa added.

    Vice Adm. Dave Dunaway, head of Naval Air Systems Command, pointed to acquisitions red tape as the reason for the hold-up.

    A request for proposals is the first step to getting a new acquisition project off the ground, and Dunaway said his team has written three of them but was still waiting for congressional approval.

    "Can we bring an unmanned vehicle to the carrier much faster? Technically? Absolutely," Dunaway said. "Organizationally, it appears to be impossible."

    Lawmakers have been reluctant to get the ball rolling on UCLASS until the Navy figures out exactly what it will be — those S's stand for strike and surveillance, and there's some debate over which should take precedence.

    "There’s a political battle going on with what kind of capability we need coming off the carrier," Dunaway added.

    Back in March, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, made headlines when he accused the Navy's UCLASS requirements of being "strategically misguided," in a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter obtained by the U.S. Naval Institute.

    "I am concerned that the current requirements proposed for the UCLASS program place a disproportionate emphasis on unrefueled endurance to enable sustained ISR support to the carrier strike group, which would result in an aircraft design with serious deficiencies in both long-term survivability and its internal weapons payload capacity," he wrote.

    McCain, a retired Navy fighter pilot, argued that the Navy should focus more on creating an unmanned strike fighter. He added that he would like to see more testing with the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration vehicle, the program that became Northrop Grumman's X-47B.

    "Our nation has made a sizable investment in this demonstration program to date, and both air vehicles have consumed only a small fraction of their approved flying hours," he wrote.

    The issue, according to an unmanned aviation expert, is that the Navy wants to keep the market wide open for its next unmanned vehicle.

    "They don’t want to use the X-47B because they believe it would give an advantage to Northrop Grumman in the UCLASS competition," Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group, told Navy Times in an Oct. 1 phone interview.

    However, he added, more hours spent flying the Northrop Grumman aircraft won't give them any more of a leg-up than they already have from manufacturing UCLASS's predecessor.

    "The requirements of the UCLASS competition themselves will very strongly determine which company has the advantage," he said.

    Northrop's expertise in strike and stealthy reconnaissance would put it at the head of the pack if the Navy decides to focus there, with Lockheed right behind it, Finnegan said.

    But if they go for a more straightforward vehicle that does recon in an uncontested environment, he added, it would favor companies like Boeing and General Atomics.

    All four contractors have put forth potential designs, with Northrop's based on its X-47B model. The Lockheed version, dubbed "Sea Ghost," looks a lot like the Air Force's RQ-170 Sentinel, with the same batwing design as the X-47B.

    Boeing has come up with the "Phantom Ray," another batwing model, and General Atomics is offering the "Sea Avenger," which looks a lot like the Reapers it has designed for the Air Force and other federal agencies.

    All four plans have a wingspan between 50 to 70 feet, with variations in speed, endurance and payloads.

    "It makes total sense," Finnegan said, for current carrier crews to get some practice with the X-47B while they wait on UCLASS.

    "It’s a desire for the Navy, which is the service which has least used unmanned systems and is behind the Army and the Air Force, to gain expertise," he said. "And to gain expertise from the carrier makes a lot of sense when you’re planning a major acquisition that would come from a carrier."
    Last edited by JRT; 12 Oct 15,, 01:23.