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U.S. Navy delays start of bidding for unmanned carrier-based drone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy, concerned about the affordability of a new carrier-based unmanned spy plane, has delayed this month's planned kickoff of the competition to build it, officials said on Tuesday.

They said the Navy will wait to seek proposals for the contract until after the Pentagon conducts a broad review this fall of intelligence and surveillance programs. Many large U.S. weapons makers have expressed interest in competing for the new Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance Strike (UCLASS) contract, one of few new weapons programs up for grabs in a tough budget climate.

Navy officials had hoped to release a final request for proposals for the UCLASS this month, after a meeting of Pentagon officials on Sept. 10.

Those plans changed last week at a meeting chaired by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, and the program's fate and cost will now be weighed as part of a larger review planned in conjunction with the fiscal 2016 budget process.

Jamie Cosgrove, spokeswoman for the Navy's unmanned aviation programs, said decisions about the competition for the UCLASS program will be made after a review that will be done "in conjunction with the normal budget review process this fall."

Cosgrove had no immediate comment on when the request for proposals could be released.

Congress has been debating what the range and armaments should be for the Navy's next-generation unmanned plane, but Cosgrove said the decision to delay the competition was focused more on affordability than requirements.

The delay was first reported by U.S. Naval Institute News.

Companies interested in the UCLASS competition include Northrop Grumman Corp , maker of the X-47B unmanned, unarmed plane that has already been tested on U.S. carriers.

Bids were also expected from Boeing Co , Lockheed Martin Corp , and General Atomics, which builds the popular Predator unmanned planes used by the U.S. Air Force and other government agencies.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio)

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