Unmanned Carrier-Based Aircraft System:

Navy Needs to Demonstrate Match between Its Requirements and Available Resources

GAO-15-374: Published: May 4, 2015. Publicly Released: May 4, 2015.

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Michael J. Sullivan
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What GAO Found

Since our last review in September 2013, the intended mission and required capabilities of the Navy's Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system have come into question. Ongoing debate about whether the primary role of the UCLASS system should be mainly surveillance with limited strike or mainly strike with limited surveillance has delayed the program, as shown in the figure. Requirements emphasizing a strike role with limited surveillance could be more demanding and costly.

Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike Program Delays

Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike Program Delays

aEarly operational capability is currently not anticipated before fiscal year 2022 and could occur as late as fiscal year 2023.

The knowledge the Navy has obtained about the resources needed to develop the UCLASS system may no longer be applicable depending on what requirements are finally chosen. GAO's prior best practices work has found that before initiating system development, a program should present an executable business case that demonstrates that it has a high level of knowledge and a match between requirements and available resources. If the final UCLASS requirements emphasize a strike role with limited surveillance, the Navy will likely need to revisit its understanding of available resources in the areas of design knowledge, funding, and technologies before awarding an air system development contract.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Navy expects to have invested at least $3 billion through fiscal year 2020 in the development of the UCLASS system, which includes air system, aircraft carrier, and control system and connectivity segments. It is expected to enhance the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, and strike capabilities of the Navy's aircraft carrier fleet. In August 2013, the Navy awarded contracts worth $15 million each to four competing contractors to develop and deliver preliminary designs for the air system, which were assessed by the Navy in May 2014. The next anticipated steps for the program will be to solicit proposals and award the contract for air system development.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 included a provision that GAO review the status of the UCLASS acquisition program annually. This report assesses (1) the current status of the program, and (2) the extent to which the Navy has the knowledge about resources it needs to develop the UCLASS system. GAO applied best practice standards, analyzed program documentation, and interviewed Department of Defense (DOD) and contractor officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that before committing significant resources the Navy should ensure that it has an executable business case for UCLASS development that matches available resources to required capabilities. On behalf of DOD, the Navy generally agreed with the recommendation.

For more information, contact Michael J. Sullivan at (202) 512-4841 or sullivanm@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The UCLASS program was halted in January 2016, and restructured into the MQ-25 Unmanned Air System, a carrier-based aerial refueling system which represents a shift in mission focus. Given the end of the UCLASS program, we are closing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Once the Joint Requirements Oversight Council has validated UCLASS requirements, and in order to ensure that the Navy has a sound and executable business case and establishes an acquisition program baseline before awarding a development contract and committing significant resources, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy to provide a report to the congressional defense committees and the Secretary of Defense demonstrating that the Navy has the resources available and a strategy to deliver those required UCLASS capabilities. At a minimum this report should include: (1) An updated cost estimate; (2) A schedule for holding a Milestone B review and establishing an acquisition program baseline before initiating system development; (3) Plans for new preliminary design reviews and technology maturation if more demanding requirements are validated; and (4) What consideration is being given to adopting an evolutionary acquisition approach.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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