The latest development involves a project to develop the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) jet aircraft. Development problems and tight budgets are forcing Navy aviation experts to convert this program to a carrier-based unmanned tanker to be known as the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS).
The Navy's 2017 research budget request asks for $89 million for CBARS research and development, which is the first-ever Navy budget request for the newly defined CBARS program.
CBARS takes the place of the UCLASS program, which is zeroed-out in the 2017 DOD budget. UCLASS funding was $434.7 million this year, and was $382.5 million in 2015. It's now up to Navy unmanned aviation experts to capitalize on the large UCLASS investment and transform it into a carrier-based unmanned aerial tanker.
Likewise the Navy's Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) advanced component and prototype development program has been zeroed since last year. The UCAV program, which eventually morphed into the UCLASS program, spent more than $1.5 billion over nine years of research and development.
It's been clear for nearly two years that Navy efforts to develop a combat unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was in trouble. Budget pressures caused researchers to take shortcuts, and Navy carrier air group commanders realized that efforts were leading to a combat UAV that didn't have the weapons payload for useful air strikes.
After budget cuts forced designers to cut out a lot of air-to-ground capability, the UCLASS program that emerged from the zeroed UCAV program was offering essentially a carrier-based surveillance platform, where Navy leaders originally wanted an unmanned stealthy deep-penetrating strike aircraft.
An expensive carrier-based unmanned surveillance aircraft was something that Navy leaders just didn't need. Now they're trying to retreat and regroup, and recoup some of their research and development investments by developing the CBARS carrier-based unmanned aerial tanker.
Among the rationale for converting an unmanned combat aircraft program into an unmanned aerial tanker is to free Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter bombers from their aerial refueling missions to concentrate on strike and air-to-air missions. Producing an unmanned aerial tanker also could help extend the range of manned carrier-based combat aircraft, Navy officials say.
It's not clear yet how the CBARS program will be structured, or how Navy leaders can leverage the money they spent on the UCAV and UCLASS programs not only into a meaningful unmanned aerial tanker program, but also for future generations of carrier-based unmanned fighters and bombers.