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No less an authority than Gen Mike Hostage, commander of the USAF's Air Combat Command, has questioned the relevance of the current unmanned aircraft fleet in the Western Pacific. "We are now shifting to a theatre where there is an adversary out there who is going to have a vote on whether I have that staring eye over the battlefield 24 [hours], seven [days a week], 365 [days a year], and pretty certain they are not going to allow that to happen," Hostage said, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in late 2012. "The fleet I've built up - and I'm still being prodded to build up too - is not relevant in that new theatre."
However, the UCLASS project is turning out to be far less ambitious than initially expected. Rather than an ultra-long-range, stealthy, unmanned carrier-based bomber with a hefty payload, final navy requirements call for the UCLASS to be little more than a modestly stealthy jet-powered Predator.
It will not be a penetrating strike aircraft in any real sense, as the requirements primarily call for the UCLASS to operate in lightly contested airspace. Furthermore, the aircraft is primarily geared towards the ISR role, with a light secondary strike mission.
As currently envisioned, the UCLASS will have a total payload of 1,360kg (3,000lb), of which only 454kg would consist of air-to-ground weapons.
Longer term, Gunzinger says unmanned aircraft have to become more autonomous if they are to be able to operate over the horizon inside contested airspace. It will take time to develop certain higher order functions, such as co-ordinating multiple air vehicles without a man-in-the-loop or avoiding pop-up threats, but Gunzinger believes more autonomous UAVs are technically feasible: "That's within the realm of emerging technology. We can have a more autonomous UAS today, for example, UAS capable of autonomous air refuelling that could greatly extend their range and endurance."
But Pietrucha says true autonomy is not technically feasible: "I had this discussion a couple of months ago with a bunch of the artificial intelligence guys from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. Their answer on the true autonomy piece is 'no way in any type of foreseeable future', because you need something like the transistor to come along: the unpredictable breakthrough in cybernetics or robotics."
Originally posted by Zaphod58
Lockheed Martin has said that they believe the aircraft will have to go a fifth generation route if it wants to survive in the A2AD threat environment. The problem is that more stealth tends to lead to longer time to develop and higher costs. The Navy wants to have the first aircraft in service within three to six years of award.