WASHINGTON, June 3 (Reuters) - U.S. Navy officials this week voiced rare dissent with the Pentagon over a long-delayed competition for a new armed, carrier-based drone that could be worth billions of dollars to industry, and said the U.S. Defense Department’s foot-dragging posed risks to the Navy’s future aviation forces.
Rear Admiral Mike Manazir, director of air warfare for the Navy’s chief of naval operations, on Wednesday said the Navy’s requirements for the new unmanned aircraft had been locked in for well over a year, but the Navy could not release the terms of the competition until the Pentagon completed its study.
Manazir echoed growing frustration voiced by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus during a speech at a Washington think tank on Tuesday.
Boeing, Northrop Grumman Corp, maker of the X-47B unmanned, unarmed plane that has already been tested on U.S. carriers, Lockheed Martin Corp, and privately held General Atomics have already spent tens of millions of dollars to prepare to bid for the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance Strike program.
But the program - one of few new aircraft programs up for grabs for industry - has been on hold for nearly a year pending a Pentagon-wide review of intelligence and surveillance programs that has stretched on much longer than expected.
Navy officials say they worry that further delays will put the U.S. military at a disadvantage versus potential enemies like China, which are rapidly developing their own drones.
Manazir said the Navy also wanted to move ahead with the UCLASS program to help inform its requirements for a next-generation strike fighter.
“We’re going to fall behind on the benefits for having an unmanned attribute inside the air wing,” he said. “That’s where I’m frustrated - when something’s ready to go and ... it advances our warfighting capability why wouldn’t you?”
Mabus told an event at the American Enterprise Institute think tank on Tuesday that the Pentagon should let the Navy proceed with the new aircraft, since it was intended to do more than just provide intelligence.
Manazir said the Navy was studying the business case for using Northrop’s X-47B to carry out more testing in the interim instead of retiring the experimental planes - a move backed by some lawmakers.
Mabus said one key concern was how to keep working on that particular platform without giving its manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, “a huge advantage” in some future competition. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Leslie Adler)