US Navy’s unmanned jet could be a tanker

(From Defense News)

WASHINGTON–One of the biggest questions facing the future of US Navy carrier-based aviation is what will be the primary mission of its new unmanned jet. Some believe the aircraft — to be produced by the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program — should be a stealthy strike jet able to penetrate an enemy’s defenses without risking a pilot. Others want a spy plane, able to launch from a carrier and produce high-quality, real-time intelligence.

US Navy X-47B

US Navy X-47B

The Navy was set to announce a choice in late summer 2014, but continuing controversy inside the service, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill led leadership to suspend any decision pending a service-wide review of unmanned and intelligence assets.

Now it would seem a decision has been made between strike and recon. The winner?

Aerial refueling.

Enter the Carrier-Based Aerial-Refueling System, or CBARS.

Very few details are known about CBARS — some sources were familiar with the effort but not the acronym. But it seems a significant portion of the UCLASS effort will now be directed to produce a carrier-based aerial tanker, able to refuel other planes low on gas.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter could reveal the decision Tuesday morning when he’s to speak about the fiscal 2017 budget submission at the Economic Club in Washington. The budget itself is scheduled to be delivered to Congress on Feb. 9.

Several sources contacted for this article confirmed the role of CBARS will be primarily tanking, “with a little ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance].”

Strike capabilities, the sources all said, would be put off to a future version of the aircraft.

If so, the choice of a tanking role for UCLASS would be at odds with Congress, where enthusiasm for a strike aircraft has been strong. Read more

Related story: Pentagon to Navy: Convert UCLASS Program Into Unmanned Aerial Tanker, Accelerate F-35 Development, Buy More Super Hornets

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