Here's What You Need to Know: The UCLASS drone ran into an interesting predicament.
The Navy almost developed a stealthy, armed, carrier-launched attack drone to bring new range dimensions to maritime power projection. This drone would have conducted high-risk forward offensive missions against enemy air defenses, enemy surface ships and even adversarial fighter aircraft.
The first-of-its-kind drone could have also been developed into a carrier-launched refueler. Based upon a Northrop Grumman developed X-47B demonstrator aircraft, the Navy’s UCLASS program achieved a huge milestone several years ago by landing autonomously on an aircraft carrier. However, following extensive debate and programmatic deliberation, the UCLASS program was scrapped in favor of a less stealthy, unarmed refueler drone called the MQ-25 Stingray.
Now, some prominent members of Congress are calling for the Navy to again pursue a UCLASS-like capability.
“The Navy needs to develop an unmanned, long range, carrier based, penetrating strike capability. Yet, this nascent UCLASS program was usurped to field a far less capable MQ-25 tanking drone,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces ranking member said in prepared remarks in Congress in March 2021.
Wittman, and others throughout recent years, have lamented the demise or disappearance of the UCLASS program, as there does not appear to be any kind of comparable capability specific to a maritime warfare environment.
What happened? The UCLASS drone ran into an interesting predicament, as it was intended to bring the dual-advantage of combining stealthy reconnaissance and air attack weapons capability into a single platform. The program collided into a wall of debate, with some developers arguing that the aircraft needed to remain stealthy like the X-47B to defeat rival air defenses, yet others felt it needed to be larger, bulkier and therefore less stealthy to carry large fuel tanks in order to conduct longer-dwell missions without needing to return or refuel. Ultimately, the platform never did quite seem to reconcile these positions or recover from this conceptual collision and thus wound up evolving into what is now the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueler drone.
The Pentagon is already known to operate some stealthy drones, as well as armed drones, yet there may also be space for new drones which are both armed and stealthy? Perhaps even some tailored to a maritime warfare environment as UCLASS was. Many are familiar with the stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone, named the “beast of Kandahar,” and DARPA is now developing its new LongShot armed attack drone, which looks a little stealthy. However, is there a carrier-launched armed attack drone? Wouldn’t there certainly seem to be an argument for why one might be needed in today’s modern threat environment?
Added to the threat equation and potential urgency of the argument is the fact that China has built its stealthy, armed Gongi-11 drone, which was on deployment in a Chinese National Day parade. While only the top is visible in available photographs, images of the drone reveal a blended wing-body stealthy exterior similar in design construction to the RQ-170 Sentinel and even a B-2.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
This article first appeared in March 2021.
Image: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Boeing / Wikimedia Commons